Warren Gillis: Coastal Carolina’s Swiss Army Knife

Warren Gillis. (Courtesy Photo / Coastal Carolina Athletics)
Warren Gillis. (Courtesy Photo / Coastal Carolina Athletics)

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.”

Warren Gillis. (Courtesy Photo / Coastal Carolina Athletics)
Warren Gillis. (Courtesy Photo / Coastal Carolina Athletics)

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.”

Warren Gillis. (Courtesy Photo / Coastal Carolina Athletics)
Warren Gillis. (Courtesy Photo / Coastal Carolina Athletics)

For more untold stories of the underdogs that make March Madness and the NCAA Tournament so magical, read here.

North Florida’s Beau Beech: A dream come true

Beau Beech. (Courtesy Photo / ASunPhotos.com / North Florida Athletic Communications)
Beau Beech. (Courtesy Photo / ASunPhotos.com / North Florida Athletic Communications)

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!’”

Beau Beech. (Courtesy Photo / ASunPhotos.com / North Florida Athletic Communications)
Beau Beech. (Courtesy Photo / ASunPhotos.com / North Florida Athletic Communications)

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.”

Beau Beech. (Courtesy Photo / North Florida Athletic Communications)
Beau Beech. (Courtesy Photo / North Florida Athletic Communications)

For more untold stories of the underdogs that make March Madness and the NCAA Tournament so magical, read here.

Hampton’s Quinton Chievous: Following his father’s footsteps

Quinton Chievous. Photo Credit: Mark W. Sutton / Hampton Athletics
Quinton Chievous. Photo Credit: Mark W. Sutton / Hampton Athletics

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.

Zach Rufer: Lafayette basketball’s Mr. Energy

Zach Rufer. Photo Credit: Lafayette Athletics
Zach Rufer. Photo Credit: Lafayette Athletics

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.

Ashton Pankey: Manhattan’s Hercules, mother’s helper

Pankey sizes up his opponent in Manhattan's loss to Florida State. Courtesy photo / Perrone Ford PTFPhoto
Pankey sizes up his opponent in Manhattan’s loss to Florida State. Courtesy photo / Perrone Ford PTFPhoto

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 [26] 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.

**

Ashton Pankey cuts down the net at the 2015 MAAC championship. OBW Photo / Ari Kramer
Ashton Pankey cuts down the net at the 2015 MAAC championship. OBW Photo / Ari Kramer

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.

Lucky to be alive: Robert Morris’ senior Lucky Jones’ story of survival

Lucky Jones. Photo Credit: RMU Athletics
Lucky Jones. Photo Credit: RMU Athletics

Lucious “Lucky” Jones Jr. isn’t supposed to be here.

The product of one of the most impoverished and dangerous cities in the country, Jones has gone on to become Robert Morris’ all-time leading rebounder, will finish his career by stepping out into the game’s grandest stage in the NCAA Tournament, and become the first of his six siblings to graduate college.

But Lucky Jones’ story goes far beyond the hard-luck kid makes good tale oft-told this time of year. Lucky Jones isn’t supposed to be here, on this earth, period. Lucky Jones shouldn’t be alive today.

“I almost passed away when I was a young boy,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I was almost a year old, and my parents didn’t think I was going to make it to a year. I was in and out of the hospital everyday.”

Now Six-feet-six-inches and 210 pounds of wiry strength and chiseled fast-twitch muscles, Jones spent the first year of his life on deaths doorstep. Born with Hirschsprung’s disease, a condition in which nerve cells in the colon don’t form completely, Jones endured numerous surgeries and had to wear a colostomy bag from birth until almost the age of two.

It was then, weakened, malnourished, less than two years old, and fighting for his life, that Jones first flashed the bullheaded determination that he would harness years later on the hardwood to become a hellacious defender and ferocious rebounder.

“Lucky is definitely a fighter; he fights with everything he has,” says Robert Morris head coach Andrew Toole of the player he calls the, “heart and soul” of the team.

“The doctors didn’t think I was going to make it, but I pulled through,” says Jones, with a chuckle, downplaying miraculous nature of his survival, which earned him his nickname.

In a perfect world, after surviving such a harrowing experience as a child, things would have come easy from there on out in life for Jones. Instead, he would find himself facing long odds and daunting obstacles time and time again.

“It’s been constant my whole life,” he says of adversity and heartbreak, “I just live with it and deal with it on a daily basis.”

But every time, he would face them down, and emerge triumphant, flashing his trademark smile.

The struggle in Newark

Jones was born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, to Vicki and Lucious Jones Sr. Vicki’s only child, Jones grew up with six older half-siblings, all of whom he says played a big part in his life.

A struggling city defined by its docks, rail yards, dead-ends, and crooked politicians (five of the city’s last seven mayors have been indicted on criminal charges), Newark was once ranked as the “Most Dangerous City in the Nation,” by time magazine, and still boasts one of the highest per-capita murder rates in the country.

“It was hard. You didn’t really want to go outside every day, knowing what kind of things went on,” says Jones. “Growing up there, praying everyday, saying your prayers to try and stay away from the rough crowd. I was always trying to keep myself around great people.”

Jones credits those “great people,” chief among them his mother and father, as well as several cousins and friends, for keeping him out of trouble. And he credits the game of basketball, introduced to him by Lucious Sr.

“My father, he played the game till he couldn’t play it no more, and I wanted to follow his footsteps and just try to be better,” says Jordan of his introduction to the sport. “He opened my eyes to have this opportunity that I have right now. He’s the reason why I play basketball – that’s the main reason right there.”

According to Jones, from the time he received his first basketball as a present for his second birthday, to the day he cut down the net as the Northeast Conference Champion a week ago, his father has been a constant presence as a mentor, guide and, when needed, kick in the ass throughout his career.

“He’ll push you to the limit,” says Jones. “He really helped me in all my years of playing basketball, to understand that the game can have its ups and downs.”

Suiting up for St. Anthony’s

By the time he got to high school, Jones was talented enough to suit up for legendary head coach Bob Hurley and his storied St. Anthony’s program. But early on in his career, he seldom left the bench.

“I was pretty much a tall, lanky spot up shooter who could knock down open shots,” says Jones, who has since emerged as arguably the best defender in the Northeast Conference.

According to Jones his defensive development began when Hurley and his longtime assistant, Ben Gamble, sat him down in Hurley’s office for a frank conversation during his junior year

“Coach Hurley had conversations with me about being a defensive player, also with coach Gamble, and they sat me down and said I had to bring more to the table.”

According to Jones, over the summer, he dedicated himself to transforming his body and his game.

“That whole offseason I spent on getting stronger, trying to get quicker laterally, and trying to stick it out,” he says.

As a senior, Jones averaged 10.4 points and 6.3 rebounds for a St. Anthony’s squad that went a perfect 33-0 and claimed the USA Today national championship. But Jones presence was far bigger on the defensive end, where, he locked down future NBAer Michael Kidd-Gilchrest en route to the New Jersey state championship.

But even when he was winning a championship during a perfect senior season, Jones was facing an onslaught of losses, as an older sister passed away from complications of the flu and an older brother was sent to prison for drug related offenses.

“That was tough, but it’s life, and you learn to live with it and just keep pushing through,” he says.

Finding a home at the last minute

Despite winning a national championship, Jones’ phone remained silent throughout the early, and well into the late signing periods. Then, in what was tantamount to college basketball’s 25th hour, it finally rang.

“Coach Andy [Toole], being from New Jersey, really liked the way my game was, really liked the way I played, liked my defensive performance,” says Jones. “He gave me a shot and I just took that and ran with it.”

And ran with it he did, scoring 1604 points, ripping down a program record 836 rebounds and swiping 166 steals while hitting 80-percent of his free-throws over his four-year career.

But the one thing that had eluded Jones, one of just two four-year seniors on the Colonials, was a trip to the NCAA Tournament, as Jones and the Colonials lost twice in the championship game during his first three seasons.

“I definitely went into this year with the mindset that I was going to leave everything I had on the floor, and if we didn’t make the tourney I would know I had given it everything I had,” he says.

Jones tied a career-high by pouring in 27 points in 24 minutes off the bench in an opening round win over Wagner, then scored 11 points and added three steals in a semifinal win over Bryant to reach the NEC championship, where he had a change to ice the game with one second remaining and the Colonials leading 66-63.

Normally automatic at the line, the emotions of the moment got the best of Jones, who missed both shots with tears streaming from his eyes, but finally earned the elusive trip to the NCAAs when St. Francis’ last minute heave back-rimmed as the final horn sounded.

In the wild celebration that followed, Jones shared a moment first with his mother and then with the man who first introduced him to the game so many years ago.

“It was very emotional, very satisfying, very overwhelming. It was a great feeling,” he says of the moments he shared with his parents.

Jones will finally get to set foot on the NCAA Tournament on Wednesday, when the 16th seeded Colonials face off against fellow 16-seed North Florida in the NCAA Tournament First Round. Jones doesn’t care that the first – and possibly only – time he sets foot on the NCAA Tournament hardwood will be, in essence, in a play-in game.

“This is something I’ve waited my whole life for, and I’m going to cherish every minute of it,” he says.

Jones will graduate in the spring with a degree in management. A huge sneakerhead, one day he would love to open his own shoe store, but he isn’t about to let go of playing the game anytime soon.

“I want to play professionally, whether that’s in the states or overseas it doesn’t really matter, I just want to continue to play and continue to have fun,” he says.

But he isn’t ready to start looking at life beyond Robert Morris basketball yet.

“I know no 16 has ever beaten a one, but I like those odds,” he says, “they’ve been working in my favor my whole life.”

Lucky Jones. Photo Credit: RMU Athletics
Lucky Jones. Photo Credit: RMU Athletics

For more untold stories of the underdogs that make March Madness and the NCAA Tournament so magical, read here.

Evan Bradds, Belmont basketball: The shots before The Shot

Evan Bradds. Photo Courtesy of Belmont Athletics
Evan Bradds. Photo Courtesy of Belmont Athletics

One day before Taylor Barnette hit The Shot, his teammate Evan Bradds had to hit the shots.

On March 7, Barnette gathered a hurried pass and hoisted up a deep 3-pointer with multiple hands in his face. When Barnette let fly amidst a sea of defenders in a deafening arena, the Belmont basketball was trailing 87-85 against then-No. 25 Murray State, and a loss in the Ohio Valley Conference championship game seemed all but assured. When his shot splashed down with 3.2 seconds left, Belmont was going dancing.

One day earlier, a pin-drop silence enveloped the Nashville Municipal Auditorium as Bradds stepped to the free-throw line. With 26 seconds remaining, and the Bruins trailing Eastern Kentucky, 52-51, in the OVC semifinal, it was up to Bradds to keep the Bruins’ season alive.

“I was just thinking to myself: ‘Make these because I don’t want to go to overtime,’” says Bradds.
For the first 39 minutes and 34 seconds, the 6-foot-6-inch sophomore forward who currently ranks third in the entire nation in field goal percentage at 69.3 percent had slogged through an uncharacteristically bad day: 2-of-6 from the floor and 0-for-2 from the line.

But when it mattered the most, Bradds didn’t miss, swishing both shots for his fifth and sixth points of the night, setting the stage for his teammate’s heroics one day later.

It was something Bradds had been working towards his entire life.

Youthful competition and family ties

Bradds was raised in Jamestown, Ohio, and from his earliest memories, the game wasn’t simply a constant in his life. It was a legacy.

“Basketball has always been something that I liked to do,” Bradds says. “My parents never really pushed me to do it, but it’s kind of a family thing, and I just loved to play with my friends around the block and it ended up being something that I was good at.”

Calling basketball a ‘family thing,’ is a rather large understatement for the Bradds family. Evan’s father, David, played college ball at Dayton. His grandfather, Gary, still stands as one of the greatest players in Ohio State history, where his No. 35 jersey hangs retired after he earned All-American and AP Player of the Year honors in 1964 and was drafted by the Baltimore Bullets with the third overall pick in that year’s NBA draft.

Bradds carried on the family tradition, following in his grandfather and father’s footsteps, playing at Greeneview High School, but he says he never felt pressure to live up to his father or grandfather’s careers.

“All that stuff is awesome and I’m super proud, but I’ve always played for myself and for my teammates,” says Bradds. “I’m proud of it, but it’s not like I felt the pressure to perform or be as good as they were. It was always there, but it’s never been a factor of why I chose to play basketball or anything like that.”

High school success

After following in the footsteps of his family, Bradds earned varsity letters at Greeneview in all four years. Under head coach Bill Green, Bradds’ teams went an astounding 74-16, and he averaged 23.4 points and 11.0 rebounds per game as a senior in a championship season. Along the way he earned 2013 Ohio First Team All-State and Academic All-State honors, while becoming the all-time leading scorer in Greeneview High School history and emerging as one of the top players in all of Ohio.

“I continued to play, and during high school we had a bunch of good high school games and won a lot of games and I just continued to do whatever it took for our team to win,” Bradds says. “I had an excellent experience, had a great coach and great teammates. It was a great support system.”

As a junior, Bradds committed to Ohio University, but altered his path due to a coaching change at the school, and later decided that Belmont was the place for him

“You can’t go wrong with the history that Belmont’s had, especially in the last couple of years,” he says. “One of the reasons was obviously Coach [Rick] Byrd is one of the greatest coaches in the country, in my opinion.”

Improving throughout college

Bradds appeared in 35 games as a Bruins freshman, scoring double figures in 16. A four-time OVC Freshman of the Week, Bradds finished second in the league in field goal percentage of 65.1 percent, while averaging 8.8 points and 4.1 rebounds per game and earning Academic All-Conference honors.

“From my freshman year, I tried to step up and be more of a leader of the team. I knew that we were going to be pretty young, so I just wanted to take a bigger role on the team,” says Bradds.

As a sophomore, Bradds’ numbers took a big leap, as he led the league in field goal percentage at 69.3 percent, while averaging 14.3 points and 7.2 rebounds per game.

“For this season, I’ve worked a little bit on my scoring and on the defensive end. So, I’m just trying to do whatever it takes for my team to get the win,” says Bradds. “I think I’ve gotten a little stronger from my freshman year and my finishing around the rim has gotten a lot better.

“[I’ve] Made a lot more shots, mainly due to my teammates, and I’ve rebounded the ball a lot better than I did last year as well.”

Bradds credits his teammates and his competitive nature for his improvement.

“It’s the competition. I’m super competitive,” he says. “So, I like to win and hate to lose. I love the game and love the competition.”

Bradds was named All-OVC Second Team as a sophomore, and led the nation in field goal percentage since mid-January at 70.4 percent, and cracked double figures 24 times over the course of the year.

“I would probably say the best part of my game would probably be my ability to finish around the rim,” Bradds says. “I like to think that I have pretty good presence around the rim. My teammates trust me down there and feed me the ball a lot when I get a smaller guard on me.”

March Madness

The Bruins went 19-10 in the regular season, and 11-5 in the OVC, carrying a four game winning streak into the conference tournament.

“We had our ups and downs throughout the year,” he says. “Like at the end of the year, we finally put it all together and rode a couple game win streaks into the tournament.”

Still, the Bruins entered the OVC tournament as decided underdogs, a Murray State championship all but a foregone conclusion for a team that went 16-0 in conference play and entered the conference tournament riding a 24-game winning streak.

Barnette proved to be the hero when the Bruins played giant slayer in the championship game, but it was Bradds’ free throws after ripping down an offensive rebound and drawing a foul, that made those heroics possible.

“Something for sure that I’ve had to work on,” said Bradds, who hit just 64.3 percent of his freebies during the year. “I’ve never really been a very good free throw shooter, but you just got to keep working at it.”

NCAA Tournament Bound

Every player dreams of stepping out under the bright lights of the NCAA Tournament, and Bradds is determined to make the most out of the opportunity.

“As a team goal, I think it’s every team’s goal to make the NCAA tournament,” says Bradds.
The Bruins will be decided underdogs when they take the floor on Friday as a 15-seed against two-seed Virginia, but Bradds and the Bruins aren’t going to simply be happy to be there: they’re coming to win.

“Shoot the ball well, play solid defense, and grab some rebounds,” says Bradds of the keys to a first round upset, adding, “just play as hard as possible and hopefully win as many games as we possibly can as a team.”

Evan Bradds. Photo Credit: Belmont Athletics
Evan Bradds. Photo Credit: Belmont Athletics

For more untold stories of the underdogs that make March Madness and the NCAA Tournament so magical, read here.

Dallas Moore: the heart of University of North Florida basketball

Dallas Moore. Photo Credit: ASunPhotos.com/North Florida Athletic Communications.
Dallas Moore. Photo Credit: ASunPhotos.com/North Florida Athletic Communications.

Dallas Moore remembers exactly where he was and who he was with on March 9, 2014, when Mercer defeated Florida Gulf Coast in the Atlantic Sun championship game.

“[Chris Davenport and I] were in the locker room with Matt Warren,” says Moore, North Florida’s sophomore star referring to his teammate Davenport and team manager Warren. “We were watching the game on ESPN2 and it was frustrating, too, because we had beaten them twice that year.

“[Chris and I] sat in the locker room that day and said next year that was going to be us.”

That moment, sitting in silence in the smelly, sweaty locker room, proved to be prophetic a year later, as Moore and the North Florida Ospreys stormed through the Atlantic Sun Tournament and on to the NCAAs.

To say Moore has been a big part of the Ospreys’ first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament would be a huge understatement. Moore had a monster sophomore season, leading North Florida in scoring (15.9 points per game) and assists (3.6) while shooting a 48.8 percent from the floor. He had a career-high 36 points in an Atlantic Sun semifinal win over Lipscomb.

Moore credits refusing to dwell on his big freshman year for his success as a sophomore, earning Atlantic Sun First Team All-Conference honors en route to the NCAAs.

“Just the mindset to be consistent all year and not think about last year and my accomplishments,” says Moore on his mindset entering this season. “I don’t like to pride myself on that, I think I can get better every day, so I thank my teammates for keeping me humbled, and coach for helping learn and grow every day.”

A St. Petersburg native, Moore starred at Boca Ciega High School, and was heavily recruited by the likes of Florida Atlantic University, University of South Florida, University of Central Florida, Rice University, and several others. But he credits an incredibly strong bond with North Florida head coach Matt Driscoll for making his decision to attend North Florida as one of the easiest of his life.

“I felt like I bonded with coach and the coaching staff a lot better than anyone else,” says Moore. “I knew where I was going to go by my senior year because of the relationship I built with coach and the coaching staff.”

Instead of handwritten letters, Driscoll set aside time to speak to Moore and get to know the young man who could potentially join his team.

“Coach Driscoll and the coaching staff always contacted me personally,” says Moore.

Moore’s love for the game started as an 8-year-old in St. Petersburg, Florida, 200 miles south of UNF’s campus in Jacksonville.

At the time, he wasn’t thinking about the success he would have 11-years down the road, he was just trying to get his father to let him play basketball instead of baseball.

“My dad tried to get me to play baseball, because he played it,” says Moore. “I didn’t like that it was a little boring. Basketball was fast, and I was fast so I started to like it because of that.”

Eventually, Moore’s father gave in, not letting his son off easy just because he chose a different sport.

“He really worked me out a lot, like every day,” says Moore. “I used to live in an apartment complex, and behind was a basketball court. I used to go out there every day with him.”

Moore’s father was not the only family member to have a lasting impact on the guard’s career. Moore points to his maternal uncle, Raymond “Coonie” Johns, for instilling in him the mentality to always strive for greatness, no matter the obstacles in his way.

“I was always small throughout high school. “[Johns] would always tell me, no matter how small you are you can always outwork somebody and you can always be better than somebody,” Moore says. “And that’s what I really pride myself on, just competing and just giving 100 percent.”

Johns battled kidney disease for most of Moore’s life, and passed away just before North Florida opened the Atlantic Sun Tournament against Stetson. According to Moore, Johns was in his thoughts and his heart throughout the Ospreys’ run to the NCAAs.

“It was tough losing him after the Stetson game, and I thought about it even all the way up until the game and he wouldn’t want me to be like that during the game, he wouldn’t want me to be sad,” says Moore. “So I went out there with the mindset of helping my teammates and doing what we have to do to win.”

After Lipscomb, Moore and the Ospreys got a chance to avenge their season-ending defeat at the hands of USC Upstate a season before, in front of a record-breaking crowd of 6,155 fans to advance to the NCAA tournament, fulfilling the vision Moore, Davenport, and Warren had just one year earlier.

“It still hasn’t sunk in all the way yet,” says Moore. “It’s still an amazing feeling, words cannot express how I feel. When I walked into the gym a couple of days ago after seeing the record crowd and us making history, it was empty and it was just an incredible feeling to know we accomplished something like that.”

Moore has never had any doubts of his decision to attend UNF, but the euphoria of making school history and strapping on his dancing shoes has only reaffirmed that he made the right choice for where to spend his college days.

“It’s been great,” he says. “The atmosphere is great; the students are great, when they come to games and stuff like that. On-campus, talking to people – the people are awesome here – my teammates are great, I love them, I trust every single one of them, the coaching staff is great and I love this school, there’s no place I’d rather be.”

Moore and the 16-seed Ospreys will have a chance to continue to make history when they set foot under the bright lights of March Madness against fellow 16-seed Robert Morris in the NCAA Tournament First round on Wednesday.

Dallas Moore. Photo Credit: ASunPhotos.com/North Florida Athletic Communications.
Dallas Moore. Photo Credit: ASunPhotos.com/North Florida Athletic Communications.

For more untold stories of the underdogs that make March Madness and the NCAA Tournament so magical, read here.

Belmont basketball’s Taylor Barnette: A shot of faith

Taylor Barnette. Photo Credit: Ben McKeown/Belmont University Athletics
Taylor Barnette. Photo Credit: Ben McKeown/Belmont University Athletics

The left-handed form and rotation on the ball was exactly the same as when he started shooting on the hoop in his driveway in Lexington, Ky., all those years ago.

Only this time, the stage was so much bigger and the stakes so much greater.

With 5.4 seconds remaining in the Ohio Valley Conference championship game, Taylor Barnette took a hurried pass from teammate Reece Chamberlain roughly 25 feet behind the hoop and fired a Hail Mary up towards the heavens.

Barnette’s shot hung in the air for 2.2 seconds, which might as well have been an eternity, before splashing down through the hoop, slaying 25th ranked Murray State and sending Barnette and his Belmont Bruins on to the NCAA Tournament.

“It was a dream come true,” says Barnette, who, despite drilling the shot refuses to stand alone in the spotlight. “Credit to my teammates though–especially during the final play. A great screen by Nick Smith and great pass from Reece Chamberlain.”

“I didn’t expect to do it frankly,” says Belmont basketball head coach Rick Byrd of the upset. “I’m not saying I thought it wouldn’t be possible, but we are just so young–we lost five conference games and we didn’t win the regular season for the first time in five years. We just weren’t [that] good of a team all year long, but we did have a chance to improve and we have improved. This one is special in that way, we overachieved to win. To get a win against Murray State just says a lot about these kids.”

Two years ago, Barnette, now a 6-foot-3-inch red-shirt sophomore, was in a Virginia Cavaliers uniform, averaging 2.6 points, 0.7 rebounds, 0.7 assists and 9.5 minutes in 26 games as a true freshman. Despite playing limited minutes, Barnette carved out a niche in arguably the best conference in the country as a sniper off the bench, shooting 47.1 percent from the field and ranked second on the team at 43.2 percent from downtown, drilling 10-of-17 (58.8%) 3-point attempts in ACC play.

But after the season, Barnette decided to transfer, landing at Belmont.

“I want to put that in the past,” Barnette says, refusing to delve into the details of his transfer. “Based on fit, I thought the combination of reasons were larger enough. I’m very happy.”

Barnette says there are no hard feelings, and credits his time at Virginia for spurring his personal growth.

“I’m thankful for Virginia,” Barnette says. “It was a learning experience. I learned a lot and it was fun.”

And after spending last season sitting out per NCAA transfer rules, Barnette ranked third on the Bruins in scoring, averaging 10.7 points per game while starting all 31 of the Bruins contests. Barnette credits Byrd and the Bruins’ team-above-individual mentality for the success he is not enjoying.

“I really believe in this team, and coach Byrd is the best in the country. He is going to have us prepared and we have to buy into that,” says Barnette, who spent two days after his heroics home visiting his family, of his faith in his team’s ability to compete in the NCAAs.

Barnette’s faith in the Bruins stems from his faith in God, as he truly believes that this was God’s plan all along.

To describe this years Belmont basketball program, Barnette cites Romans, Chapter 12 in the King James Bible.

Romans 12:3-8

“For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith. For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; Or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teacheth, on teaching; Or he that exhorteth, on exhortation: he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness.”

“Like the passage states, this team has different gifts,” Barnette says. “Every one of these guys has a part. They all do things to the fullest.”

And if another moment comes where the Bruins are down to the last shot, Barnette would not shy away from taking it again.

“If coach called for me to shoot it I would,” Barnette says. “But, if I saw a teammate open I would pass it, because I believe in them to make that.”

Belmont will be entering the tournament with a clean-slate, and it is one and done from there on out. But one thing that is definite about this year’s Bruins is that its players believe in one another, and like Barnette’s Christian belief–he will continue to prosper, following the plans that await him.

“This team is so special to me,” Barnette said. “We keep a strong attitude. Been getting great opportunities and doing everything in my control. This is what we dream of, everything we have done has been for this moment.”

Barnette, Byrd and 15-seed Belmont will tip off their NCAA Tournament on Friday when they face off against, fittingly, Barnett’s former team: second-seeded Virginia.

Taylor Barnette. Photo Credit: Ben McKeown/Belmont University Athletics
Taylor Barnette. Photo Credit: Ben McKeown/Belmont University Athletics

Northeastern basketball’s T.J. Williams and the father who spurred his success

TJwilliams4

The sun has barely been up in Texas and T.J. Williams is already at work – but not on a basketball court. That comes later, when most of his peers are just getting out of bed.

Williams wakes up at 6:30 am to bike down to the Villages of Hidden Lake. He needs ample time to circle the lake twice, a 3-and-a-half mile distance.

On a good day, the future point guard for 14-seed Northeastern basketball, will then ride the hills, pumping on his pedals until he feels his calves burn.

Then it’s time to hit the court. Williams will be early for his team’s morning practice and the last to leave practice after school but he likes it that way.

It’s all he’s known since the third grade.

“You always want to be the first person in the gym and the last person to leave the gym,” says Williams, a sophomore whose Huskies will take on three-seed Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament second round on Thursday, looking back on the training regiment of his childhood. “I know that I would always be the last one to leave.”

When all of his teammates have left, one person joins Williams in the gym. Tim Williams can’t always make it with work but he has been his son’s most consistent coach.

When Williams got his first letter of interest from a college – in eighth grade – his father kept him humble by making him practice twice as hard.

“When I realized he was going to be pretty good, I started working him out every weekend and I would take him to the gym after I got work,” Tim says.

Every day wasn’t easy for the father and son but even when his son lashed out, Tim knew his son would one day understand.

He knew that his son had the potential to be a starting point guard at a Division I school.

SACRIFICE NOW

Tim Williams’ passion has always been basketball but the Louisiana native got his college opportunity on the baseball diamond. After playing at Houston-Tillotson, Tim spent about five years playing in professional softball tournaments.

He still thinks that with the right mentor, his path could have led to a parquet court.

“Had I had somebody to push me, to give me that extra push, there’s no telling where I could have been,” Tim says. “Since I didn’t have that, I wanted to make sure I didn’t shortchange my son.”

Tim saw the signs of potential when his son was assigned to play with fourth graders as a third grader. From there on most vacations were spent traveling as far as San Diego – anything to get Williams into the best basketball camps possible. Weekends were spent in 24-hour fitness.

“Everyday was not a good day between T.J. and myself,” Tim reflects. “There was days he didn’t want to go and he didn’t understand why I was pushing him so hard.”

When Williams’ middle school friends invited him to sleep-overs, he had to decline because he risked missing a morning workout.

“It was very hard,” says Williams. “I didn’t understand some of the things that I was doing was going to get me to where I would want to be later on in life.

“…I was living the basketball life at a young age and it felt like a job to me almost but I didn’t really realize it at the time.”

One might think the pressure would relent when Williams got a letter of interest from Texas A&M in the eighth grade. But Tim knew the letters would stop coming for his undersized son if he let up.

In fact, high school meant it was time for Williams to clamp down more – even if it meant distancing himself from childhood friends.

“There are going to be some people that you’re going to be dealing with and if you’re going to reach the next level, you’re going to have to distance yourself from them,” Tim told his son in high school. “There are things that they’re doing and you’re doing that aren’t the same.

“Your common going and their common going is not the same.”

Soon, T.J. Williams was waking up in the morning to workout by himself. He implemented the hills and the bike riding into the workouts without his father.

Williams’ peak physical condition led to success on the court.

After an injury-plagued junior year, Williams averaged 17 points per game on 48-percent shooting and led Pflugerville to a district championship.

But college is a whole different ball game.

tjwilliams2

UNCOMMON GROWTH

Northeastern Coach Bill Coen says there are three sides to a basketball player’s transition from high school to college; the new home, the added mental load and the higher level of weight training and conditioning.

Williams was more than ready on the latter of the three. After starting high school at 5-foot-6, the point guard entered Northeastern at 6-foot-3 and 203 pounds.

“He got his body up on his own by going to the gym and lifting weights so that when he stepped on to Northeastern’s campus, he didn’t look like the same T.J.,” Tim says.

It didn’t take long for Williams to make his presence known in his freshman campaign. After scoring 10 points in a nationally televised 63-56 win against basketball power Georgetown, the guard was promoted to the starting lineup.

“His entire freshman campaign built to his last six weeks where he really, in that point in time, got comfortable with himself, got comfortable with his teammates, got comfortable with the system and got comfortable with the level,” says Coen.

Williams ended the year with averages of 6.9 points and 2.3 rebounds per game, sufficient enough to earn him a spot on the CAA All-Rookie Team.

The award was a sign that his childhood training — that would make many high school athletes shudder — was for good reason.

When the 2014 season ended, Williams was faced with a decision: go home to see his hometown friends or stay on-campus to workout with the team.

He knew the jump from freshman to sophomore year is crucial for a basketball player. But the lure of seeing your family and high school friends could change any 20-year-old’s mind. As always, his father pushed him to take his training up a notch.

“Some of those same people you went to high school with, they won’t even be a part of your life once you grow up,” Tim says referring to their talk in the summer. “You’re going to lose people along the way. I don’t need you to come home this summer. Stay up there, get an education and work on your game and that’s going to benefit you more.”

It has clearly paid dividends.

Williams finished second on the team in assists (3.2 apg), while averaging 9.7 points, shooting .457 from the field and .346 from behind the arc.

While most of his high school friends were partying on New Year’s Eve, Williams scored a career-high 20 points and had six assists and six rebounds against Richmond.

The performance was enough to get him CAA Player of the Week honors.

“There’s been some great point guards out there from J.J. Barea to Chaisson Allen to Jon Lee and those guys, all different styles, but they all took command of the game,” Coen says of the torch that has been passed down from recent Northeastern point guards. “I think TJ is just taking that edge where when you watch the game, you begin to notice him more.”

Coen and Williams credit part of his growth to the summer workouts. His effort in the off-season even caught the attention of an “old” Northeastern star.

“The way he makes plays for his teammates and gets them shots and he doesn’t give up on the defensive end as well,” says former Husky Joel Smith, now with the Mexican team Ultimas Noticias. “He’s got a big heart for the game and just goes after it.”

But Williams also credits his father’s constant pressure and guidance.

“I can look back and say that’s why I did that because this is why I’m here — I put in all that extra time,” Williams says.

Like any father, Tim is extremely proud of his son’s early success but it didn’t take a Player of the Week award to make that happen. He could sense his son’s growth when T.J. called him in the summer and told him thank you.

“The thing that I’m most proud of is that even when he didn’t believe what I was putting him through was for a reason, I’m most proud of that I had an opportunity for him to tell me he understands,” Tim says of his son. “Everything I was trying to tell him, he understands.”

According to Tim, the extra time on the court was never about the game.

“He’s playing basketball and that’s important right now,” Tim says. “But I want him to be a good person that’s playing basketball rather than a person who’s playing basketball that’s not a good person.”

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Photographs by Sam Perkins

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