Not too many positives can be drawn from losing by 44 points.
But when Robert Morris got blown out by No. 6 UNC 103-59, in just their second game of the season, one Colonial was able to still impress.
Marcquise Reed scored 24 points on 10 of 15 shooting in just 24 minutes. Reed said the game impressed his coaching staff and led to him averaging 27.4 minutes-per-game in a season that ended with the Northeast Conference Rookie of the Year award.
“I was real hyped for the game,” Reed says. “Everybody was just saying you better show out and show the world what you can do.”
Reed’s family and friends who motivated him earlier in the season will be cheering him on when Robert Morris encounters a new challenge: North Florida in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Wednesday.
Reed, a Landover, Md-native has proved he can face challenges.
“It’s a rough, rough neighborhood, Reed says of his hometown. “There’s a lot of talent out there but a lot of people don’t get the offer.”
His adolescence was great preparation for a season of distractions for Roger Morris.
Suspensions and injuries resulted in only two players – Reed and Rodney Pryor – playing in all 33 games for the Colonials.
Reed said his grandparents, parents and all of his coaches consistently told him he was going to make it, even before he averaged 31.2 points and 4.6 rebounds per game at Capitol Christian Academy.
It also helped that he came to the academy ready to play. Reed was already disciplined in the gym by playing football for most of his life. In fact, he originally thought he would make it out of Landover with a football in his hand.
But when he got to high school, he committed himself fully to basketball.
Once immersing himself fully into life on the hardwood, he added to his list of supporters.
Reed said Towson’s Byron Hawkins, a Fort Washington-native guard, has been like his brother since the Maryland days.
“It’s like a brother relationship,” Reed says. “We work out together, we push each other.”
And when Towson was knocked out in the first round of the CAA tournament, Reed said Hawkins still reached out to tell him that he needed to finish the job of putting his hometown on the national stage. “Even though they were out, he said it’s time to put on for back home,” Reed said. “Remember where we come from and try to make a run for the NCAA tournament.”
If anyone had full confidence the Huskies would win the CAA championship, it was Max Plansky.
Plansky, 16, of Danvers Mass., has been a consistent source of inspiration for Northeastern since signing a national letter of intent in 2013 through Team IMPACT, a program aimed at improving the quality of life for children facing life-threatening and chronic illnesses.
Plansky has attended every Northeastern practice and home game, even on school days, during his time with the Huskies.
Because his severe cerebral palsy limits his traveling abilities, away games are usually dubious. But Plansky, who long ago predicted Northeastern’s deep run, deserved to be with his teammates when it counted.
“We got to get ready for March,” Plansky told his speech specialist earlier in the season.
Once his father, Michael Plansky, heard the message, he made his son a promise: If Northeastern made the championship round of the CAA tournament, they would find a way to get down to Baltimore.
With the help of the Northeastern coaching staff, Michael would reunite his son with his teammates in the championship, which evidently reunited Northeastern with the NCAA tournament.
Even before the early wakeup and the long, uncomfortable drive, Plansky had already provided a spark for Northeastern.
Before the start of the tournament, coach Bill Coen reached out to various alumni of Northeastern basketball requesting they send in a video-recorded bit of advice.
The video included Matt Janning, Chaisson Allen and NBA champion J.J. Barea, all saying what it would take to win a CAA championship. But the message that sent the Huskies’ locker room into a frenzy?
An image of Max Plansky using his computerized speaking device, to say, “Northeastern basketball, I love you guys. I’ll see you at the championship.”
The Huskies were so moved by their teammate’s message, they replied to his recording with their own video.
But getting Plansky to Baltimore is easier said than done.
While the Huskies were resting after a hard-fought win against UNC-Wilmington in the semis, Plansky and his father were waking up at 6 am on Monday morning for a 7-hour trip to Baltimore.
A 7-hour drive isn’t easy for any 16-year-old but not stretching out of his wheelchair for that long would be strenuous for Plansky.
“He just gutted it out,” said Michael. “He was just so excited about it. Every game is like Christmas for him.”
Upon arriving, Michael learned that the family’s parking had already been taken care of at the Royal Farms Arena. In fact, coach Dave McLaughlin was standing in the parking lot waiting for them when they arrived.
The Northeastern assistant coach got credentials for Plansky and his family too – but did it without telling any of the other players.
So when Plansky wheeled into the Northeastern locker room before tip-off of the championship, it gave a tense locker room a pre-game celebration.
“They were doing there pregame stretches and then suddenly it’s ‘Max is here! Max is here,” Michael said.
Plansky stayed in the locker room for pre-game and would return for halftime. Before the game, while Coen went over the game plan with his players, Michael said the coach regular would stop and ask Max if he approved.
“They include him in the true sense of including,” Michael said.
Plansky has a usual spot during Husky games: at the end of the bench, to the right of personal trainer Art Horne.
It would be no different for the CAA championship. Plansky took ownership of his spot and his role of being positive from start to finish.
“He’s so happy to be there,” said Michael. “It doesn’t matter if things going are good, bad or whatever, he’s got a positive attitude.”
He wasn’t always like that. When Michael, a former player at Fairfield, left a career in coaching, he said Plansky struggled to control his emotions and would have bursts of frustration.
But ever since a Northeastern loss to Harvard earlier this season, he’s noticed a calmer, cooler and collected Plansky.
“That’s 180 degrees from what he used to be,” Michael said.
The growth of his son influenced Michael to found “You’re With Us,” a program aimed at connecting able-bodied college groups with disabled young adults.
If he needs any evidence for how affective the collaboration can be, he only needed turn to the end of Northeastern’s bench during the championship game.
Even when Marcus Thornton and Daniel Dixon led a late rally, cutting the Huskies’ once 20-point lead to single digits, Plansky remained unnerved.
And when the final buzzer sounded and the celebration had begun, Plansky’s teammates made sure he was in the middle of it all.
The 16-year-old was at the center of every victory picture and his team made sure to cut a piece of net just for him.
“He’s been an inspiration to these guys and really a source of compassion,” Coen said in the championship post-game presser. “…I’m so proud of the way our team has accepted him, embraced him and made him feel welcome and special and in return these guys get so much more.”
And Plansky is proud as well. When asked what gives him the most joy about being on the team, he said, “Just being around the guys.”
“It’s just special,” Michael said. “I don’t think I can put a different word on it. That’s become his identity, to remain rock solid. And I can’t see how that doesn’t rub off on other people.”
Seven questions with Max Plansky: Northeastern’s unsung hero
1. Has it hit you yet that your a member of the first championship team for Northeastern since 1991? It hasn’t hit me yet.
2. What does that mean to you?
I am happy for the guys and the coaches and all of their hard work.
3. What was your favorite moment from Monday?
Being part of the post game celebration.
4. In what area have you changed or grown the most since joining Northeastern?
Trying to remain positive no matter what happens.
5. Who would you rather play in the NCAA tournament.. Kentucky, Kansas or Maryland?
Maryland, but don’t let them know.
6. What about attending practices and games gives you the most joy?
Just being around the guys.
7. Any teammates you’re specifically proud of after this season?
All of them.
Cor: An earlier version of this story referred to Michael Plansky’s father as Tim. His name is Michael.
Wofford senior Lee Skinner has been told he’s too small to play power forward his entire career. At 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, his detractors may have had a point.
But instead of listening to all the negative static that surrounded him, Skinner let it fuel his play on the court.
“I just use it as motivation. I’ve never really been in the discussion of ‘Oh he’s a really good player, you have to watch out for him.’ I’ve always been on the other end like, ‘Oh, Skinner is gonna have a tough time matching up with so-and-so, he’s got two or three inches and 20 pounds on him,’” Skinner says. “But I love that challenge, it makes me better. I hate playing guys that are smaller than me, not that I can’t or don’t want to, but I love playing the goliaths and the giants so I can really show that it’s heart over height. Heart over height; I love that challenge.”
That chip on his shoulder helped him lead the Terriers to their second straight Southern Conference championship and NCAA Tournament berth. Skinner was named MVP of the SoCon tournament after dropping a team-high 17 points in a 67-64 win over Furman.
“It goes back to his basketball IQ—he’s got a great understanding of angles, he’s physical, he’s strong,” Wofford coach Mike Young says. “He masks [being undersized] with those characteristics. He’s got the heart of a mountain lion, and it’s because of that he finds himself in the right place more often than not.”
Skinner had been battling against circumstances larger than him long before he arrived at Wofford. He grew up in Lombard, Illinois as an only child raised by a single-mother.
“I grew up with a single parent, my mother, and struggled for a while—struggling with maintaining and having a guidance other than my mom, like a father figure,” he says. “I looked at sports as a gateway, a way to stay out of trouble.”
Skinner played basketball since he was in the eighth grade and says he stopped playing baseball after his sophomore year of high school. But his first love was football, which he played since he was four years old. As a wide receiver for Glenbard East High School, Skinner earned all-conference and all-area honors.
“Absolutely, I loved football,” Skinner says when asked if he misses football. “I really, really did. It was tied with basketball in my love for it, just the physicality and all of that. A lot of my friends played football growing up, and then when I get to Wofford I got a lot of friends here that play on the football team and with the school so small I run into them all the time. I go and check out the games and it’s hard not to miss it, for sure… I throw a football around every now and then, and sometimes I joke around with the guys on the football team here, just telling them they couldn’t guard me.”
After graduating, Skinner chose the squeaks of sneakers on the hardwood and the sounds of swishes through the basket over the clanks of helmets colliding on the field.
“I picked basketball to pursue after high school because I just felt like I loved it more,” he says.
He spent a prep year at Fork Union Military Academy, an experience unlike anything he’s ever gone through and something he says shaped the man he is today.
“It’s still a part of me that I didn’t have beforehand. They take away our phones, having no social media—when we got there they check your computer and they could tell if you’re on a blocked site,” he says. “So there was no communication really with the outside world other than a few minutes a day here and there. They totally strip you of who you are and what you were before you come in, and you come out a better person.
“It made me a better person—how I looked at things, how I treated people, how I treated myself, really put things into perspective and showed me what was important. Fork Union was amazing for me, I didn’t like it at the time but I love it now for what it did for me.”
Skinner was named to the all-SoCon second team after helping lead the Terriers to a 28-6 record. His impact on the team goes beyond the numbers he puts up on the court.
“He’s as fine a leader as we’ve ever had here,” Young says. “He’s the straw that stirs the drink for us; (Karl) Cochran gets a lot of attention, deservedly so, he’s a great player, but Skinner makes the train run.”
Wofford came out of nowhere to win the SoCon title last year, so winning it a second time gave Skinner and his teammates the validation they felt they deserved.
“Nobody expected us to win last year, so everybody said ‘Oh wow, they stole one,’ or ‘They came up lucky,’” Skinner says. “This year it was sweet because we started the conference number-one, we ended the conference number-one and we pretty much proved to everybody how hard we work and how we earned it and deserve it.”
Wofford was given a No. 12 seed in the West Region and will face fifth-seeded Arkansas on Thursday. Skinner looks back at his performance in the SoCon tournament and knows he will have to duplicate it if the Terriers hope to be successful.
“I think I was just a little more aggressive offensively; I know I’m gonna play defense every possession, every night every game,” he says. “If I’m out there screaming on defense and playing really tough and making plays for the team on the defensive end, then coming down and scoring every few possessions, I know that’s gonna have a huge impact on my team.”
This being Wofford’s second straight year in the Big Dance, Skinner says the Terriers aren’t just looking to take part, they’re going into the tournament to bust some brackets.
“We’re going to win as many games as we can,” he says. “Last year we got the chance to enjoy the experience, but this year we’ve been there before and we’re an even better team than we were, so I think it’s gonna be a lot of fun.”
Valparaiso junior guard Keith Carter was one of the happiest players on the floor when the Crusaders won the Horizon League championship. But before Carter could achieve happiness, he was forced to deal with heartbreak.
A standout at Proviso East High School in Illinois, Carter was runner-up for the state’s Mr. Basketball award in 2012 and earned a scholarship to Saint Louis to play for famed head coach Rick Majerus. But that same year Majerus was forced to take medical leave from the team, and died of heart failure on December 1, 2012.
The death of a coach is an indescribable pain for players to have to go through. Unable to play for the coach who recruited him, Carter transferred to Valparaiso prior to the start of the spring semester in 2013.
“He had a close relationship with Coach Majerus, and that was his reason why he was at Saint Louis,” Valpo head coach Bryce Drew says. “When he transferred to us he definitely was a lot more quiet, and it’s been really nice over the last year and a half to see him open up and really just be the great person that he is.”
A man of few words, it took time for Carter to adjust to his new surroundings during the 2013-14 season. This year, he is much more comfortable and has stepped up and became a true leader for the Crusaders.
“Just be the leader on the team, the second coach on the floor,” Carter says of his role this year. “I run the team and try to make sure everything goes well.”
“I’m sure when you talk to him, you wonder how is this guy a leader because he doesn’t really talk that much, but when he gets comfortable around you—like he’s comfortable around our team—he’s just tremendous,” Drew says. “When the guys hang out in the team room you always hear his voice going. On the court he does a great job talking to guys in between plays and getting guys on the same page. He has a really good basketball mind and it goes back to him having a good feel for the game, so I feel very comfortable with him talking to guys and talking in our huddles.”
Carter missed a little over a month of the season due to a dislocated toe but still managed to rank among the team’s leaders in multiple statistical categories. Carter was fourth on the team in scoring (8.5), led the team in assists (84), and was second in three-point percentage (38.3 percent) and steals (29).
“It’s been great. Last year I started off slow, but this year I feel like I’m on a roll,” Carter says. “I came together with my teammates and my coaching staff and just play my game and they allow me to run the team.”
“He has a great feel for the game. He can shoot the ball, he can score, he can pass, he can rebound,” Drew says. “He just takes what the game gives him; early in the season he was really scoring the ball well for us and lately he’s been penetrating and passing. He also has a great nose for the ball—he’s not necessarily a great jumper—but he does a great job finding where the ball is at and pursuing rebounds.”
Carter came up big off the bench in the conference championship, filling the stat-sheet with eight points, team-highs of seven rebounds and six assists, twos teals and a block. The Crusaders needed every bit of his performance to overcome a 10-point deficit in the first half and earn a 54-44 win over Green Bay.
“We went down early, so I just wanted to keep everybody level-headed and stay in the right direction,” he says.
Valparaiso received a 13 seed in the NCAA Tournament and will face No. 4 Maryland in the Midwest Region on Friday.
“I think we have a group of guys who are excited to be there and enjoying everything so far about the experience, but we have a very competitive group,” Drew says. “I know that they’re gonna want to compete at the highest level when they get there.”
For Carter, he will forever carry around the memory of Coach Majerus as he and his teammates pursue the happiness that comes from the Madness of March.
Lawrence Alexander Jr. corralled a short-hopped bounce pass on the right wing with 11 seconds remaining in the 2014 NCAA Tournament second round and his 12th seed North Dakota State Bison trailing fifth-seed Oklahoma by three.
He had no fear. The pressure of playing the role of giant-killer against a national power on national television, and taking the biggest shot in school history — one on which the hopes and dreams of an entire state rested — had nothing on trying to keep his son alive as a poor teenage father in Peoria, Illinois.
“That was an amazing day,” says Alexander, who calmly drilled the game-tying 3-pointer en route to a then career-high 28 points to lead the Bison to the first NCAA Tournament win in school history.
But it wasn’t the most amazing day of Alexander’s life.
“Not by a long shot,” he says, with palpable joy in his voice as he thinks back four and a half years earlier to Oct. 26, 2009, the day his son, Lawrence III was born.
“The birth of my son is the greatest moment of my life, it’s not even close,” says Alexander, who had turned 18 just four days before Lawrence III entered the world. “I was broke, I was scared and I didn’t know how I was going to keep him alive, and I am forever a better person for it,” he says.
Now 23, as a 6’3” point guard, Alexander has emerged as a bona fide NBA prospect and mid-major star, earning Summit League Player of the Year honors by averaging 18.9 points and 4.6 rebounds per game while hitting 44.1 percent of his 3-pointers. Achievements and honors that, along with his shot against Oklahoma, he says would not have been possible without his son.
“I don’t think I’d be playing basketball if he wasn’t born,” says Alexander. “He definitely changed my whole life, my responsibilities completely changed: It wasn’t just worry about yourself and your own needs, it’s you have to put someone else whose entire life depends on you first.”
Against all odds
Poor, black and a teenage father; Alexander had three strikes against him in the eyes of many by the time he turned 18.
“I kind of had a lot on my plate before getting here,” says Alexander. “My senior year (of high school) I was becoming a father, I had to balance school and basketball and becoming a father.”
But Alexander credits the odds that seemed to be stacked against him for making him the man he is today.
“I think everything I faced growing up, the family I have, and of course my son, are what made me who I am today,” he says.
Alexander was born and raised in Peoria, a city that sits on the Illinois River in the heart of the state.
“It’s a great city and a good community, but you still have things that make you lose focus, a lot of danger,” says Alexander of his hometown, where nearly 20 percent of residents live below the poverty line.
“The crime rate has been going up every year. You have peers who try to force you to do things that are not healthy for you, healthy for your body,” he says.
Alexander admits that he didn’t always have his priorities in order as a teenager, but that all changed when his son was born.
“Once I became a father, I started to get a lot better,” he says, “he turned me into a better person.”
On the hardwood, Alexander had a solid career at Peoria Manual High School, averaging 15 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists per game as a senior for the Illinois Class 2A runners-up, earning First Team All-Conference, All-State and state tournament MVP honors.
But upon graduation, he found himself without a single Division I scholarship offer.
“North Dakota State actually wanted me to walk-on,” he says of his senior year, “but my family didn’t have the money so I couldn’t.”
But he was able to land a scholarship to play prep basketball for St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy in Delafield, Wisc. It was an opportunity that Lawrence could not pass on if he was going to make a run at his dream of playing college ball, but one that meant moving away from his young son, which he calls the hardest decision he’s had to make in his life.
“It’s definitely hard. No father wants to be away from their child for not even a half hour. But I knew it could lead to a better life for him,” he says. “I knew once I left it would be tough on me, him and his mom, but I knew when it was all said and done he’d be able to have things that he needs and he wants.”
After a standout prep season at Northwest Military Academy, Alexander was offered a scholarship by then head coach Saul Phillips, and jumped at the opportunity. The only thing was, he didn’t know the first thing about Fargo.
“No, actually, I couldn’t,” he laughs when asked if he could have located Fargo on a map at the time.
“When [Phillips] old me he was in Fargo North Dakota I was like, ‘where is that?’ All I could think of was just a bunch of farmland and nothing surrounding it,” he says.
But Alexander says he immediately warmed to the notoriously frigid city.
“Once I got here it definitely changed my mind. I came here and I fell in love with it,” he says. “I was kind of spoiled for the first two years, because they didn’t really have a bad winter, but last year it definitely caught up to me.”
Far apart but always in his heart
For Alexander, playing college basketball and earning a college degree has meant spending most of his four-years in college nearly 700 miles away from his son, something he calls “excruciating.”
“I love him, and I want to be around him all the time, but I think the sacrifices today will provide him with a much, much better tomorrow,” he says.
Alexander has kept up with his over the phone, facetime and the internet, and remains a constant presence in his life even from afar.
“He was born with a basketball,” he says proudly of his son, “he had one in his crib.”
But while Alexander admits he’d be happy if his son enjoyed the same successes as he has on the court, he isn’t trying to push him into the sport.
“He’s had a ball with him ever since he could walk, but he actually played peewee baseball last spring. He wants to play flag football, but I don’t think his mom is going to let him,” he laughs. “Honestly, I don’t want him to feel like he has to follow in my footsteps or live up to anything I’ve done, as long as he’s happy and healthy, I’m happy.”
Announcing himself to the world
Alexander stepped out onto the hardwood at the Spokane Arena on March 20, 2014 and stared across the court at fifth-seed Oklahoma. He saw as not only chance to prove that he belonged on the same floor as one of the premier programs in the country, but also as an chance to pay back the school that had given him the biggest opportunity of his life.
“North Dakota State gave me a chance to continue to play basketball and even more importantly to get a degree, it gave me a big chip on my shoulder to prove myself against everyone else and to play against Oklahoma,” he says.
Up until that point, Alexander had enjoyed a solid but unspectacular career, averaging between 10.8 and 12.8 points per game in each of his first three seasons. But against the Sooners, Lawrence played out of his mind, drilling 10-of-15 shots and 4-of-7 three-pointers.
The monster game served as a launch pad for Alexander’s career. As a senior, Alexander has scored 20 or more points 14 times, including 25 points, 17 of which came in the second half, in a 57-56 win in the Summit League championship game over archrival South Dakota State.
Alexander has vowed to savor every moment and leave every once of himself on the floor when 15th seed North Dakota State takes the floor against second-seed Gonzaga in the final NCAA Tournament of his career.
“This is it. I’m forever grateful for everything North Dakota State has done for me and I’m going to give them everything I have in return,” he says.
When his college career does come to an end, Alexander would like to continue his career professionally, either in the states or overseas.
“Hopefully I can continue to play basketball and be somewhere playing professional basketball, but if not, I’d love to get into coaching,” he says.
But wherever he goes and whatever he does, his motivation remains the same as when he first set out on his journey five years ago.
“Whatever I do, I’m going to be doing it to provide with my son,” he says.
For more untold stories of the underdogs that make March Madness and the NCAA Tournament so magical, read here.
When Warren Gillis graduated from high school, he couldn’t help but wonder, “What if?” After splitting his time between basketball and football during his four-year career at Academy of the New Church in Philadelphia, Gillis just wanted to see what would happen if he committed all his focus on one sport.
Feeling unfulfilled in knowing he never gave his full attention to basketball, his pride led him to choose to continue competing on the hardwood and he spent a prep year at Rise Academy. Now a senior playing for Coastal Carolina, which is making its second straight NCAA Tournament appearance, it’s clear Gillis made the right choice.
“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do or if I even wanted to play in college,” Gillis recalls of his feelings after he graduated. “I felt like I didn’t give the game all that I had throughout my years in high school, so I really wanted to give it another shot and see if I could actually play in college. It ended up working out for me.
“It definitely was more of a pride thing because everybody growing up wants to play Division-I whether it’s basketball or football or whatever,” he continues. “So once I saw I wouldn’t be able to play Division-I, I felt like if I could give it one more shot I can be satisfied with not making it as long as I gave it my all, you know?”
Gillis admits while growing up in Philly he never imagined he would be playing for a team with aqua green-colored jerseys and a fighting chicken as its mascot, but says he knew the Chanticleers were the right fit for him as soon as he visited the campus.
“The coaching staff was very experienced,” Gillis says. “It’s a great atmosphere and area around here, a little more laid back than Philadelphia so that was a nice little change. And then the makeup of the team was good for me and I was able to fit in right away, so that was a bonus as well.”
Gillis became a regular starter for Coastal Carolina in his sophomore year. At 6’3”, 205 pounds, he wears many hats for the Chanticleers as a Swiss-army knife-type player with no real position.
“Officially, we call me a three (small forward), but I don’t really have the three-man responsibilities that Coach (Cliff) Ellis used to have, so I would call myself a guard right now,” he laughs. “My teammates joke about it all the time, sometimes they even call me the five-man (center). Sometimes I even play the four (power forward), so I’m just all over the place.
“I think that’s one of the things that keeps me on the court. Coach Ellis can sort of just put anybody out there and I can just play any role and we can work that way. I’m trying to become a more balanced overall player.”
Gillis led Coastal Carolina (24-9) in scoring (13.1), steals (47), tied for the team-lead in assists (107) and was second in minutes-played (31.2) on his way to earning his second straight selection to the All-Big South second team. He shined brightest in the conference championship game, scoring 22 points and dishing out six assists in an 81-70 win over Winthrop.
“You just want to play your game and play with full energy and focus. You don’t want to hold anything back or have any regrets, so I just tried to come out and be aggressive,” says Gillis, who was named Big South Tournament MVP for the second year in a row. “I didn’t want to have any regrets for passing up shots or trying too hard or anything like that. I just wanted to keep the same focus.”
It’s hard enough to make the NCAA Tournament once, but to do it in back-to-back seasons is even harder. Gillis said the pressure of defending their title affected the Chanticleers early in the season, but once the conference tournament came around he and his teammates were ready for the moment.
“It was a difficult season, because you’re trying to live up to expectations and sometimes when you do that you don’t really play the way you should be playing. I had some games where I didn’t play really well, but once we got down to the conference tournament we had the best focus we had all year,” Gillis says. “We were able to play great defense throughout the whole tournament to win it. We really appreciate it because in the Big South conference you have to win the tournament to get in, so you don’t have great chances to make the NCAA Tournament. It’s always a great feeling to make it.”
Coastal Carolina will be a No. 16 seed in the West Region and face No. 1 Wisconsin on Friday. As one of two seniors on the team, Gillis is making sure his younger teammates know what the goal is, and it’s a simple one.
“We’re coming in to win, we’re preparing to come in and win,” he says. “We’re not just happy to be here; it’s great to be here but we still play to win, and that’s what we want to do.”
For more untold stories of the underdogs that make March Madness and the NCAA Tournament so magical, read here.
Beau Beech grew up just 30 minutes away from the North Florida campus in Ponte Vedra Beach and spent his childhood attending Ospreys’ rivalry games against Jacksonville University. Now a junior forward for a North Florida team heading to its first NCAA Tournament in program history, Beech couldn’t be more proud to be leading his hometown school into the throes of March Madness.
But for Beech, qualifying for the NCAA Tournament means more than just a goal achieved. It represents a promise fulfilled.
“It’s just a dream come true. My dad and I specifically had been talking about that day, March 8 at 4:30 when the final buzzer went off against USC Upstate to win the A-Sun championship; we had been talking about that day since I committed, and how great it would be to do that for UNF,” Beech says. “I had promised Coach (Matthew) Driscoll, actually, when I committed I said, ‘Coach, I’m going to do two things for you: one, we’re gonna win the Atlantic Sun Tournament and go to the NCAA Tournament for the first time,’ so that’s a check. And the second one, I said, ‘We’re gonna get to the Sweet 16 as well.’ (laughs) So I got to stick to my promises to my coach, I’m halfway there.”
Beech has never been one to shy away from setting lofty goals. As a child he watched as his father, Bud, was a highly successful coach for Nease High School. Beau attended his dad’s practices since he was in elementary school. When Bud moved on after 24 years at Nease to become the dean of students and basketball coach at Ponte Vedra High School, Beau ended up playing for his father, something he had set out to do since he was a child.
“I always put the most pressure on myself, he never put pressure on me, so I had the pressure in my own head to perform for my dad because I always promised him I was gonna win a state championship for him just like Chet Stachitas did, who played at St. Joseph’s with Jameer Nelson and Delonte West when they were making their runs in the NCAA Tournament,” Beech says. “He had played for my dad at Nease and won a state championship, and I can remember seeing Chet at practice working before or afterwards with my dad. When they won a state championship, I think I probably told my dad the next day or something, that I’m going to do that, win him a state championship when I get to high school (laughs). That was the most pressure I’ve ever felt from my dad, and it wasn’t even from him it was from something I said I’d do for him.”
While Beech didn’t get to win that state championship, he did lead Ponte Vedra to its first District 4-5A title as a senior in 2012, scoring 34 points against Nease in the championship game.
For some players, playing for their hometown school can be daunting because the whole community knows who you are. The thought of failing in front of the people who watched you grow up can add an incredible amount of pressure, but for someone like Beech, that thought never crossed his mind.
“I think it’s very difficult for a young man to choose to play in his hometown just in case he’s not good enough or just in case it doesn’t go as well as he wants it to go, unless he has that much confidence and is that intrinsically-motivated that fear doesn’t enter your vocabulary,” North Florida coach Matthew Driscoll says. “Because of that, he was able to say, ‘This is where I want to go, this is what I want to do, and I’m from right down the road.’ He told me when we recruited him he said, ‘Coach, we’re going to the NCAA Tournament and gonna play in the Sweet 16,’ and believe me I’ve told him that several times too. I say, ‘Man, don’t forget what you said now!’”
Out of the 14 players on the Ospreys’ roster, nine of them are Florida-natives. Instead of feeling pressure playing for his hometown, Beech uses it as a comfort zone. The North Florida community is all he knows, and all he loves.
“The reason why he came here, in my opinion, is he is as good of a family dude that you’ll ever want to meet in your life,” Driscoll says. “He loves his two sisters, he loves his little brother, he loves his mom and dad, he loves going home to have dinner, he loves kicking it with his dad in the gym and working out, he loves going to shop with his sister at the town center. He loves family, like he truly is a family dude, and it really shows through if you’re around him.”
Beech was an All-Atlantic Sun first-team selection, one of just two unanimous choices this year and the first unanimous all-conference selection in program history. He averaged 15.9 points and 6.4 rebounds during league play while shooting 39.2 percent from three-point range. A 6’8”, 210-pound point-forward, Beech helps the Ospreys in many different areas on the court, but Driscoll says his biggest contributions to the team don’t show up in the stat-sheet.
“Probably his greatest impact on the team is, he definitely understands what he wants to do in life and in basketball and he definitely shows every single day, that this guy is one of those dudes who really, really wants to be as great as he can be with the gift he’s been given by God,” says Driscoll, who was named Atlantic Sun coach of the year. “So he really sets an example for what it takes to get to that level. And he really is a great leader, he has that ability during the game on the floor and in timeouts, and in the locker room of course, of really doing a great job of helping lead the guys.”
North Florida (23-11) will face Robert Morris (19-14) in a First Four game on Wednesday with the winner of that game will advance as a No. 16 seed in the South Regional and face top-seeded Duke on Friday.
“Our motto the whole year has been ‘1 and 0,’ to 1 and 0 on that night. Whatever day we play, whoever we play against, wherever we play at, we just want to go 1-0,” Beech says. “It sounds cliché, but the whole school has really bought into it, there are shirts that say 1-0, there were signs at the championship game that said 1-0. It’s really caught on here and it’s really helped us the whole season.”
Driven by the pride of helping lead his hometown school to the promised land of the NCAA Tournament, Beech will savor every moment with his teammates knowing that he is performing for the entire North Florida community.
“I never thought I’d end up here, or even on a college basketball team, honestly. Once I had the opportunity to have schools ask for me to play for them I just thought, ‘Wow, this is unbelievable,’ and then UNF came into the picture and it was so weird to think that a school that I watched just for fun would consider me,” Beech says. “Once I committed, I told my dad what a small world it is, that we were here just five or six years ago talking about how cool it would be to play in that kind of environment, and little did we know I was gonna be in that environment six years later, winning the A-Sun championship.”
For more untold stories of the underdogs that make March Madness and the NCAA Tournament so magical, read here.
Hampton University senior guard Quinto Chievous is used to it: Whenever his name is brought up in a conversation about basketball, he usually isn’t the subject.
His father is.
It comes with the territory when you follow in the footsteps of a father, Derrick Chievous, who still stands as the all-time leading scorer and arguably the greatest player in University of Missouri history, and who, after college dominance, went on to play in the NBA.
But according to Chievous, who struggled to make his way onto the court at a BCS school before transferring down to a relatively unknown mid-major, only to lead his team to the NCAA Tournament, he’s never felt like he was playing in his father’s shadow,
“I mean, I was young so I don’t even remember that much, but I’ve always heard great stories about my father and what he was like as a player in college and in the pros,” he says.
“He helped me learn a lot of the plays and players and helped me develop as I got older. The older I got, specifically in my sophomore and junior years of high school, he helped me gain more knowledge about the game.”
Chievous, a 6’6” 215-pound wing, excelled at Notre Dame College Prep, being named All-City and All-State by the Chicago Sun-Times, as well as being a McDonald’s All-American nominee his senior year, earning scholarship offers from a host of high-majors along the way, before ultimately deciding to head south and play at the University of Tennessee.
Unfortunately for him, it didn’t work out.
Chievous redshirted his freshman year, averaged only 10.2 minutes per game the next year, and could find his way onto the court for 32 total minutes spread over nine games the following season.
After graduating early with a degree in communications thanks to a fast academic track, Chievous knew he had to make a change, and packed his bags and headed a few hours north to Norfolk to use his last two years of eligibility at Hampton University.
“I just felt like it was the right school,” he says. “I liked the graduate program and I saw they had a chance to win their conference tournament, so I felt like that was a good place to go.
”Going to the Sweet 16 [at Tennessee] I wanted to go back to the tournament and experience it again, so I wanted to go to a school where I would have the chance to do that.”
Hampton head coach Edward Joyner, who led the Pirates to the NCAA Tournament in 2011 before leading them back into the NCAAs this year, was ecstatic when he learned of Chievous’ decision to attend Hampton. Joyner had just lost a crucial player in Du’Vaughn Maxwell, and knew Quinton could fill that void.
“We were excited. Ironically, we said we needed a guard/forward type who could play multiple positions and help us better the team from a production standpoint and we thought that Quinton could be a big piece of that,” says Joyner.
“One strength is that he’s very versatile. He can guard different positions for us, really from three to five. He can play different positions for us, he’s played some two some three some four.
Sometimes so-called “drop-down players” carry with them oversized egos and miniscule work-ethics when they drop down from a BCS program to a small school. But according to Joyner, Cheivous has been one of the Pirates hardest workers since day one.
Despite not having much experience as a starter in college, Joyner felt Chievous could make an instant impact, so he was thrown in the starting five immediately last season, and Chievous responded, scoring in double-figures in 11 of his first the first 13 games of the season.
“If you know the game of basketball and have enough knowledge, it’s not that bad,” says Chievous of learning a new system and a new role on the fly.
“One thing that he did understand was that it takes a little time and there are a lot of decisions that you have to make on the court in college that at some point caught him by surprise,” says Joyner, “He had to learn and play through a lot of those situations more than I think he thought he would, but he’s done a good job.”
In 33 games as a Pirate, Chievous is averaging 10 points, six rebounds in 25 minutes per game. But according to Joyner, Chievous true value can’t be summarized in his raw numbers.
“I think he’s one of the key reasons that we were able to win a championship this year,” he says. “Quinton is a young man who understands roles and how his roles varied from night to night. One night we may need him to score in a big way, another night we may need him to rebound, or another we just may need his energy.
He has a bunch of different roles and he’s able to be that guy that whatever we need, he’s there to fill that role.”
With a play-in game set for Tuesday night against Manhattan in the NCAA tournament, the winner of which will play Tournament overall No. 1 seed Kentucky, Chievous knows what’s at stake,.
“It means a lot,” he says of his return to the Big Dance. “I’m really just trying to get that first win so I can add on to my legacy of going to the tournament and winning. A 16 seed has never beaten a one seed so it will be a very difficult task.”
But Cheivous isn’t going to shy away from the spotlight, or any opponent, even if it’s the mighty Wildcats.
“Anything is possible in March, and we have the chance to do something great.”
For more untold stories of the underdogs that make March Madness and the NCAA Tournament so magical, read here.
It isn’t easy to be a member of the ensemble, spending your entire career – so incredibly finite in the college basketball world – in the shadows of the stars of the show.
But it’s a role that Lafayette reserve guard Zach Rufer has not only accepted, but embraced.
“My role is to play a ton of defense when I’m out there,” says Rufer, a junior from Bloomingburg, NY, also known as “Mr. Energy.” “I’m known to bring energy out there and knock down open shots.”
“He brings a lot of energy every time I call him out there and he plays hard,” says Lafayette basketball head coach Fran O’Hanlon. “He competes in practice, diving for balls, battling for rebounds. It doesn’t change in games.”
But in the Patriot League Championship Game — biggest moments of the biggest game of Lafayette’s season, and the biggest game of Rufer’s career — the selfless 6-foot-3-inch role player grabbed the spotlight and stole the show to help send Lafayette to its first NCAA Tournament since 2000.
With 2:50 left in the championship game, the Leopards were hanging on by a fingernail to a 56-55 lead against a surging American squad when Lafayette star Nick Lindner clanged a 3-pointer, with the ball caroming towards the sidelines, appearing to give possession back to the Eagles.
Except that’s when Rufer intervened. Playing in place of Lafayette sniper Joey Ptasinski, who suffered an injury earlier in the game, Rufer swooped in to grab the offensive rebound and in one motion found teammate Bryce Scott with an outlet pass before falling out of bounds.
“I saw the shot coming off the side of the rim and was able to save it before it went out of bounds,” Rufer says.
After keeping the possession alive, Rufer curled around to the right corner where, Scott found him. Without hesitation, and with American star Pee Wee Gardner closing out fast, Rufer fired up a 3-ball, and found the bottom of the cylinder, pushing the lead back to two possessions with 2:16 left.
“There were only a couple seconds left but I was the last option so I felt I’d get an open look,” Rufer says. “It was just really exciting to be playing the last couple minutes of such an important game.”
“Ruf’ did an absolutely awesome job coming in,” says O’Hanlon of Rufer, who averaged just 3.1 points and 1.8 rebounds per game for the season. “He had a huge rebound late, and hit that big three when we needed it with Joey hurt.
Rufer’s unexpected heroics – five points on 2-of-2 shooting and five rebounds –helped propel the Leopards (20-12) to a 65-63 win and the program’s first tip back to The Big Dance in fifteen years, making fourth-seed Lafayette the lowest seed to ever win the Patriot League Tournament.
But Rufer realizes he will likely have to relinquish his star billing status when the Leopards step out under the white hot lights of the NCAA Tournament, and he’s ok with that.
“We have a lot of talent on this team,” says Rufer. “We can go anywhere. We’ve been in big games. It’s a combination of everyone.”
Rufer was actually far more comfortable praising the Leopards four seniors — Joey Ptasinski, Seth Hinrichs, Dan Trist and Alan Flannigan – than he was about talking about his star turn in the championship game.
“They’ve played a huge factor this season,” Rufer says. “They hold the team down, and do a great job leading. These guys just bring a lot of experience to the table.”
Sixteen-seed Lafayette will tip-off off against top-seed Villanova – O’Hanlon’s alma mater — in the Second Round of the East Region at 6:50 p.m. ET on Thursday night. Fittingly, Mr. Energy and his teammates will take the floor in front of thousands of paying fans, and in front of millions watching at home, at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
No 16-seed has ever beaten a No. 1, but Rufer is confident that the Leopards have a shot, and he’ll be doing everything he can – scrapping for loose balls, taking charges, and knocking down 3’s – even if no one is watching him.
For more untold stories of the underdogs that make March Madness and the NCAA Tournament so magical, read here.
Steve Masiello speaks of Ashton Pankey with mythical admiration.
“He’s kind of like a unicorn,” Masiello says.
Masiello is the head coach at Manhattan, a mid-major program hailing from the MAAC. So when he says, “You don’t get guys like that,” he means that schools at his level rarely sign chiseled 6-foot-10 forwards, who, at 225 pounds, can both run the floor and dominate the post.
“You look at this young man, and he looks like Hercules, made out of stone,” Masiello says. “He’s so strong.”
If Pankey is Hercules, Iona was his Nemean lion. The redshirt junior, who transferred from Maryland in 2012, slayed the Gaels with 21 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two blocks in the MAAC championship to lead Manhattan into the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year. He was named Most Valuable Player of the conference tournament.
“We’re not where we are today without Ashton Pankey,” Masiello says.
And Pankey would not be here — starring for Manhattan — without his mother.
Ashton Pankey remembers feeling confused. Disappointed, too. Most of all, he was frustrated.
The date was Oct. 24, 2012, and Masiello called his newly acquired forward into his office. “AP,” Masiello said, “[the NCAA] denied your waiver. It looks like you’re going to have to sit this year.”
Why? How could they reach that decision? I’m here for a legitimate reason.
Those were the thoughts cluttering Pankey’s head that day. Persuasion Branch, his ailing mother, had been evicted from her South Bronx home. He had only left Maryland — where he started 17 of 32 games as a redshirt freshman in 2011-12 — to care for her. The NCAA, he thought, would grant his hardship waiver for that reason.
“I can’t do anything without my mom,” Pankey says. “If I would have lost her, I don’t know what I would be doing or where I would be in life.”
Pankey was concerned about his mother’s well-being. He says he immediately knew he would transfer closer to home when he heard about the eviction because his younger sister, Taylor Branch, was away at Exeter Academy, a prestigious boarding school in New Hampshire.
His mother needed him, even for simple chores around her new Queens home.
“He was missing team-related stuff to go help his mom,” Masiello says. “We knew it was a real situation.”
The NCAA disagreed.
Masiello braced for a tantrum when he summoned Pankey that October day.
“Nine out of 10 kids pout, hang their heads, feel sorry for themselves,” Masiello says. “He went out in the Green & White [intrasquad] scrimmage that night and had  points in it. I saw the way he handled adversity for the first time, and I was really impressed by it.”
Pankey suppressed his questioning thoughts, the whys and hows behind the NCAA’s conclusion. He so desperately wanted to play immediately, but he could only train with his sights set on the 2013-14 season.
Pankey practiced with the Jaspers throughout the 2012-13 season, though NCAA rules prohibited him, a redshirting transfer, from traveling with the team. He learned from junior center Rhamel Brown and the coaching staff, and he spent as much time as he could with Branch.
Internally, however, he struggled.
“It was a crazy year, and it was really hard for me,” Pankey says.
Pankey is a staunch believer in everything happening for a reason, including the undesired NCAA ruling. He’s just as firm in his conviction that he could have made a tremendous impact on the Jaspers that redshirt year.
So watching from the bench as Iona beat Manhattan, 60-57, in the 2013 MAAC championship was debilitating. That experience made Pankey feel useless — he couldn’t do anything to swing the result in Manhattan’s favor — but it also disrupted his stoic disposition.
Masiello remembers sitting in the team hotel that night, on the verge of tears as he recounted how his Jaspers came so close to reaching their first NCAA Tournament since 2004.
“[Pankey] came up to me, and he had tears in his eyes — and this is a kid that didn’t show emotion at the time,” Masiello says. “He was very stoic, almost to the effect of where you didn’t know if things mattered to him. He said, ‘Coach, I promise you next year we’re going to win this thing, and you have my word on that.’”
Pankey talked the talk, but at first he struggled walking the walk. He was scared of stepping on the toes of George Beamon, Mike Alvarado and Rhamel Brown, the senior class that had resurrected the program from the ground level. He didn’t want to act like the alpha dog when he wasn’t.
“I just went in and didn’t really know my role with the team,” Pankey says.
The result: a slow start.
Pankey fouled out in each of his first two games, Manhattan wins over La Salle and Columbia. He scored in double-figures — never more than 11 points — in five of the Jaspers’ first 20 games. Then were games at Illinois State and against Monmouth when Pankey scored just two points. Even in his 9-point, 5-rebound, 4-block performance at South Carolina, Pankey shot 2-for-6 from the field and fouled out.
Throughout the struggles, Pankey continued to take the subway out to Queens to help his mother. He battled a leg injury, and adjusted to life coexisting with Brown on the block.
“I don’t think people realized how many things Ashton had to deal with last year,” Masiello said this past October.
Then Pankey exploded for 12 points and eight rebounds in a 64-49 win over Saint Peter’s on Feb. 4, as Manhattan snapped a two-game skid. In the next game, Pankey had 16 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks. The Jaspers beat Canisius, 84-73, and lost just once in their nine games leading up to the conference championship.
“I think we really saw who Ashton Pankey was the last 10, 12 games of the year,” Masiello says.
Pankey scored just four points in Manhattan’s 71-68 win over Iona in the 2014 MAAC championship, but two of them came in the Jaspers’ critical 8-0 spurt with about six minutes left. He also grabbed nine rebounds and blocked two shots.
After David Laury’s last-second heave missed, Pankey found his coach.
“The first thing he did is he grabbed me and he goes, ‘I told you I got you,’” Masiello says.
Pankey’s message was the same not even three weeks later, when Manhattan placed Masiello on leave for falsely stating on his resume that he had graduated from the University of Kentucky. Manhattan agreed to reinstate Masiello on the condition he complete the necessary coursework to receive his degree, but he was crushed. He was embarrassed that he lost a five-year contract worth about $6 million with South Florida. He was ashamed that a misstep from 14 years earlier nearly cost him his livelihood and the game he loves.
Masiello ordinarily has an unbreakable will, but he was a vulnerable man in those early weeks of spring.
“[Pankey] said, ‘Don’t worry about this coach. A year from now, we’ll be right back where we belong,’” Masiello remembers. “That’s just the type of kid that AP is. The country doesn’t get to see it because he comes off so tough, his demeanor on the court.”
Which brings Pankey’s story to the last two-plus months, when his herculean physique began to consistently overwhelm opponents.
Dating back to Jan. 7 — when he had 18 points, nine rebounds and three blocks in a 68-63 win over Saint Peter’s — Pankey averaged 15.9 points and 7.4 rebounds in 19 games, 14 of them Manhattan wins. That’s easily the best stretch of his career.
“He has been dominating,” Manhattan walk-on Trevor Glassman says.
It’s easy to forget now, but Pankey struggled again early in the season. He had seven points on 3-of-8 shooting in a Nov. 18 overtime loss at UMass. He scored five points and fouled out in 15 minutes in a 64-63 loss at George Mason on Nov. 29. In 2013-14, Pankey’s nine points and five rebounds against Northeastern probably would have provided Manhattan enough of a jolt for a win.
“The biggest thing for Ashton last year was he could have an off day and this program could still win because of Rhamel, Emmy [Andujar], George, Mike, etcetera, etcetera,” Masiello says. “This year I didn’t know if we could be successful if he had an off night.”
So Masiello started from the ground level when he and Pankey broke down film together.
“We simplified things,” Masiello says. “I would say, ‘Tell me what you saw here, tell me what you saw there. What do you like? What don’t you like? Where do you like the ball? Where do you want it on this? Here’s your read on this.’”
In Manhattan’s first 13 games, Pankey produced consecutive double-digit outputs just twice. By the Saint Peter’s game in early January, Pankey had grown comfortable. He understood his role — just how important he was to Manhattan’s success — and he was ready to make his mark.
So the Jaspers entered the ball to Pankey on their first possession. Pankey banged into Quadir Welton, forced him deep under the hoop and threw down a rim-rattling dunk.
“Everybody just went crazy and I established myself and established the tone for the game and not just for the game, for the rest of the season as well,” he says.
The Jaspers will face Hampton Tuesday night in the first game of the NCAA Tournament. It might be the play-in game, but it’s the tournament, nonetheless — right where Pankey promised Masiello the Jaspers would be.
“I still feel like I’m dreaming, man,” Pankey says three days after cutting down the Times Union Center nets.
Pankey says he is closer than ever with his mother, the woman who drew him to Manhattan in the first place. Without her falling ill and getting evicted, Pankey likely would have stayed at Maryland. Had he never medically redshirted his freshman year at Maryland and had the NCAA granted his hardship waiver in 2012-13, he would have exhausted his eligibility last year. Not that he would ever wish misfortune to seep back into his family’s life, but Pankey says everything happens for a reason.
“Look how things turned out: two championships in a row,” Pankey says. “It’s just all crazy. I’m just so happy, words can’t describe.”
For more untold stories of the underdogs that make March Madness and the NCAA Tournament so magical, read here.