I knew it was going in.
It was one year ago, almost exactly. Xavier-Wisconsin in the second round. Two seconds left, tied at 63. On an inbounds play, the Badgers’ big man, from just inside half-court, passed the ball to Bronson Koenig, who was curling toward him around the top of the arc. Bronson caught the ball in front of the Wisconsin bench, dribbled once into the corner and shot.
And I knew it was good. The way it left his hands, the way he landed … there was no question.
It was a year ago, but I can still remember that shot in vivid detail. The ball was sailing through the air, and even though I knew otherwise, all I could think was, Please don’t let it be good, please don’t let it be good, please don’t let it be good….
Nothing but net.
The buzzer sounded. Game over. Season over. That’s how quickly it can all end. And, of course, in March, seedings mean nothing. We were actually a 2 seed in the tournament last year, the highest ever for a Xavier team in school history, but we still lost in the second round. The whole team was crying in the locker room afterward. It was like Coach Mack didn’t even know what to say to us. Nobody said anything. We just packed up our bags and headed home.
A week later, I started traveling around the country for NBA draft workouts. I didn’t know for sure if it was the right time to turn pro, but I wanted to test the waters. And maybe it sounds sort of cool or even glamorous for a college student to be travelling around, attending predraft workouts … but the reality was that it was tons of waiting around. Since I didn’t really know anyone in any of the cities I was traveling to, and since I didn’t have much to do besides my workouts on those trips, I usually just ended up watching TV in my hotel room. The NCAA tournament was still going on. Wisconsin wasn’t even in it anymore, but one night when I flipped the TV on … well, guess what shot they were breaking down on ESPN in vivid detail? Yup.
Ever since that night in my hotel room, it felt like I couldn’t watch college basketball without seeing that shot.
Whenever someone was talking about Wisconsin … they showed the shot.
Whenever someone was talking about buzzer beaters … they showed the shot.
Whenever they were recapping the highlights of last year’s tournament … they showed the shot.
To this day, I can’t hear “One Shining Moment” without envisioning the ball leaving Bronson’s hands and falling through the net.
The more I was forced to relive that moment, the more I knew I had to come back to Xavier. We have unfinished business.
This year, we’ve started saying the same thing every time we break our huddle after a timeout.
“Attack and finish.”
It’s what Coach Mack preaches to us every practice, every game.
You can attack all you want, but if you don’t finish it doesn’t matter. We learned that lesson the hard way last year.
This season we won 14 of our first 20 games. But in a win over St. John’s on January 29, our starting point guard, Edmond Sumner, tore his ACL. He was out of commission for the rest of the year. Just like that we had lost not only his floor leadership, but also his 15 points and five assists per game. We won three of our next four, but then I missed two straight games because of an ankle injury, and everything just started to seem like it was going sideways.
When we lost to Butler on February 26 — our fifth straight defeat — the season felt like it was spinning out of control.
We saw all the comments (on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, message boards, whatever) about our team during the losing streak — how our preseason ranking had been inflated, how we might not even make the tournament. Coach told us to ignore the noise, but it was hard to do when it was everywhere.
After the Butler game, our coaching staff proposed an idea. And, I’ve got to say, it sounded like a weird idea.
Not even weird, really … it sounded kind of desperate. Like something a team might do if it had nothing left to lose.
And at that point, I’m not sure we did.
The coaches gave us each the same single piece of paper. It was a February calendar, with the scores of each of our games on it. On the other side of the page, we were supposed to write the one thing we would sacrifice for the team.
Then we placed every sheet in a trash can set in the center of the room.
And we set them on fire.
We burned February.
And now we keep the ashes in a clear glass jar in our locker room.
Frank Victores/USA TODAY Sports
After we lost our next game — to Marquette on March 1 — we held a players-only meeting.
Before anyone could say anything, Malcolm Bernard, a senior, stood up. He didn’t need to remind us why this year meant so much to him. He’d transferred at the end of last season from Florida A&M — a program that last made the tournament in 2007.
Xavier was his best shot at getting to the postseason before his collegiate career was over.
He said we weren’t buying into coach’s system. He said weren’t playing for each other, only for ourselves. We weren’t even playing hard — which is the only thing you can really control on the court.
“We’re being selfish,” he said. “And I’m tired of it.”
At the end of his speech, Malcolm made a promise and a request.
“I’m willing to sacrifice everything for this team,” he said.
“I’m going to dive for every loose ball, close out harder on every shot, block out for every rebound. I’m going to play harder than I’ve ever played. And I need you all to follow me.”
Here was a guy who hadn’t even been here for a year — and he was calling us out.
And he was absolutely right. We weren’t finishing.
Our next game was against DePaul, and we played like an entirely different team. We won that game. And then, in the opening round of the Big East tournament, we played the Blue Demons again. And we beat them again. In the next round, we were facing Butler, the No. 2 team in the conference.
We knew we were on the bubble — we knew that a loss to the Bulldogs would all but end our chances to make the tournament. The entire game was a battle back and forth, and neither team was able to pull away. We went up by eight early in the first half, but Butler came back to tie just a few minutes later. The Bulldogs led by as many as seven points in the second half, but we came back to tie the score with about six minutes to go.
With 20 seconds left, the game was tied at 57. Time to finish.
I caught the ball above the arc, drove to the elbow, stopped and fired. Finish.
AP Images and Getty Images
On Selection Sunday we all gathered at Coach Mack’s house. One by one, teams and seedings were announced. They seeded the East bracket, but we weren’t in it. They seeded the Midwest, but we weren’t in that one either. The South came and went without our team being picked. The last bracket to be announced was the West. More and more teams were seeded, but still our team wasn’t picked. Finally, XAVIER flashed on the screen. Eleventh seed.
It was like a huge weight had been lifted off our shoulders. So what if we were the 11th seed? Anything can happen in March.
When the tournament starts, you don’t think about another team’s seeding. We didn’t look at Maryland as a sixth seed or Florida State as a third seed. To us, they were just teams that were standing in our way.
We didn’t get too rowdy after beating Maryland. I mean, don’t get me wrong, we were happy. But we knew our work wasn’t done. We view each weekend as a mini tournament, so we knew that we still had to take care of business against Florida State.
Going into that game last Saturday, we knew we had to be careful of the Seminoles’ perimeter defense, especially with how shorthanded we were at the point guard position. But Quentin Goodin, the freshman who’d stepped in for Ed in January, has really come into his own as a floor leader. It’s not easy for a guy who was only playing 12 minutes a game to suddenly be the starter, especially as a freshman, but Quentin’s more than done his part. Against Florida State, he was calm as could be, and also did a great job of bothering the Seminoles’ guards when we were on defense.
That’s really been the story of the tournament for us, as simple as it seems: Guys are stepping up. J.P., Tyrique, Kaiser … everyone’s hitting their stride right when we need them to. If I’m not shooting well, which is what happened early against both Maryland and Florida State, I know we’re going to be O.K.. Those guys have my back. And that frees me up to let the game come to me.
We’ve bought in completely to each other and coach Mack’s system. We’re back on our grind. And when we’re on our grind, we feel like we can compete with anybody.
Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports
After we beat Florida State, we kicked the celebration up a few notches. Guys were jumping around and screaming — you could see genuine joy on the faces of every player and coach. If you were anywhere in the arena after the game, I bet you probably heard us celebrating. When coach Mack walked in after his interview, we grabbed the water bottles that we had hidden underneath our seats and sprayed him until he was soaking wet. He just laughed and started dancing right along with us.
Now we’ve got a rematch on our hands: Arizona. Two years ago they knocked us out in the Sweet Sixteen. The game was tied at halftime, but they ended up winning by eight. Another game where we didn’t finish.
We’ve learned our lesson since then, several times over.
Nobody believed in us when this tournament started, but we’re still here. We’ve fought through adversity this entire year, and it has only made us stronger.
Attack and finish. It’s not just a motto. It’s not just a plan. It’s what we do.