It’s that time of year when the juices are flowing and the excitement is difficult to contain.
Then all of a sudden, reality hits. You’re playing a team you should defeat. Your shots aren’t falling and you trail by 10. Now it’s the second half, and the excitement that propelled you into the game has been replaced by anxiety.
What do you do? How do you respond? Can you remain in character and do what you did to get to this point, or does panic set it?
This is the scenario faced by many teams come tournament time, more so in the NCAA tournament than the conference tournaments, but the emotions begin to stir this week as post-season play among the major conferences begins.
“You’ve got to balance and focus really wanting something and being hungry, and being a loose, attacking group,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey Monday as his team conducted their final practice at Purcell Pavilion before traveling to Greensboro, N.C. for the ACC tournament.
It’s that “stay in the moment, stay in character” mode that has carried the Irish to a 26-5 overall record, a 14-4 mark in conference play, and the No. 3 seed in the 62nd annual ACC tournament, but just the second for Notre Dame.
The Irish have done such a good job of taking it one game at a time. For the first time since the 1988-89 season, Notre Dame has a chance to go through an entire campaign without losing two games in a row.
“There are games where you can slip up, and we did that once or twice, but we didn’t let it linger,” said Irish captain Pat Connaughton.
“We never had two losses in a row, and that’s something that makes me believe this team really understands that by taking it one possession at a time, one game at a time, we can really do some dangerous things.”
Jerian Grant, who like Connaughton will be playing his last games in a Notre Dame uniform the next few weeks, will lead the Irish into post-season play bent on avoiding regrets.
“Once you lose, you’re out, so you can’t say, ‘I wish I would have done that,’” Grant said. “You have to do it for all 40 minutes. Every possession counts. You can’t start the game off slow and think you’re going to come back. Every possession matters.”
One way to make sure each of those possessions count is to include the possessions on the defensive end of the floor as well as the offensive end.
“When we get out of character, we get back to the most important things like defense and getting out in transition,” said Steve Vasturia, who has earned the reputation of a defensive stopper on the opposing team’s greatest offensive threat.
“I think we’re playing our best when we’re running and pushing the ball. If we can get stops on defense and get out in the open floor, that’s when we’re in our best spot.”
Demetrius Jackson, like his classmate Vasturia, has played in one ACC tournament game and zero NCAA tournament games. If he feels anxiety in post-season play, he’s prepared to turn to Notre Dame’s leaders for guidance and employ an aggressive frame of mind.
“Just follow the captains,” said Jackson of Connaughton and Grant. “Pat and Jerian have done a good job of leading us all season, so just continue to follow their lead.
“They’ve been through it. They’ve experienced the NCAA tournament. We just have to have faith they’re going to lead us, and then play aggressively, throw the first punch and just play our game.”
The seniors will lean on the proof that has come from the 2014-15 season.
“We talk about being there before,” Grant said. “We were at N.C. State in a tough environment and we were down. Let’s just slowly get ourselves together and play our game.
“We’re a top 10 team in the country, and we’ve been a top 10 team the entire second half of the year. If we go out there and play the way we have all season, we should be there at the end.”
Added Connaughton: “It’s going to be a bigger stage, but it shouldn’t get us out of character. We’ve been one of the top 10 teams in the country this season, and we have a chip on our shoulder for some of the losses we’ve had. It’s just a matter of playing our game.”
Brey has an idea that he believes might be worth trying if he senses that anxiety is setting in among his players.
“I’ve certainly never been a guy to get our guys too uptight, so I may coach with my fly open, just to keep guys loose,” Brey deadpanned. “I think that’s a real balance point.”