Del Harris and the guys on Collegiate’s varsity basketball team know the feeling all too well.
Coming off a 21-6 season a year ago, they entered the current campaign with high expectations, only to have a well-coached, well-disciplined Steward squad light them up on their home court with five consecutive 3-pointers in the first quarter en route to a 63-47 victory November 28.
The defeat was painful, for sure. In retrospect, though, it might have been just what the Cougars needed.
“That night, I would say, slapped us in the face,” said 6-3 senior tri-captain Cody Patterson. “We thought we were good, but we hadn’t proven anything yet. That game woke us up. We had to lock in, embrace the loss, and use it as fuel.”
“The main thing we had to fix was our defense,” Patterson continued. “Five 3’s were unacceptable. We had to do better close-outs. We had to move our feet better. We had to stop fouling. (The Spartans hit 21-of-30 free throws.) We knew if we could win the defensive end, we could win more games.”
After splitting their next two contests, the Cougars went on a five-game tear that included road victories over Douglas Freeman, Highland Springs, and Huguenot on consecutive nights in the Times-Dispatch Invitational Tournament.
Their 63-43 victory over the Falcons in the championship game played at Hanover High School December 21 came 20 years to the day after the Cougars’ 1998-99 Hall of Fame team dispatched unbeaten Highland Springs 63-53 in the same event, then called the inSync Holiday Hoops Tournament.
“We weren’t ranked (by the T-D),” Patterson said. “We didn’t have a (first-round) home game. No one believed we could beat Freeman, Highland Springs, or Huguenot. We used that doubt and uncertainty to our advantage. We went into each game confident in each other and didn’t worry about anything else.”
The first night, the Cougars defeated the No. 10 Rebels 55-53 before a noisy, passionate crowd at the Larry Parpart Pavilion.
“We came at Freeman like we had something to prove,” said 6-0 senior point guard Jackson Watkins, also a tri-captain. “Then, we forgot about our win and came ready to play a brand new game.
“Coach (Harris) has been talking about the 24-hour rule. Regardless of what happens, you can think about it for 24 hours, then forget about it and move on. For this tournament, it was the 12-hour rule. We had to forget about it the next morning. We weren’t in the tournament to win just one game. If we get three wins, that’s how we make our mark.”
After 12 hours of reflection and 12 of preparation, the Cougars took down the No. 8 Springers 60-55 in the semis.
A day later, they jumped to an early lead over Huguenot (which had scored 88 and 75 points in the two previous nights), refused to relent, and ended the game with the starters enthusiastically cheering their backups from the bench.
Robbie Beran, a 6-9 senior bound for Northwestern, averaged 22 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, and four blocks and was an easy choice for tournament MVP. Sophomore guard Mac Macdonald also made the all-tournament team.
“We’re trying to develop our true identity,” said Beran, the third tri-captain. “We’re not a surprise team anymore. We don’t want to make (the TDIT) the high of our season. We can’t get complacent. We have to keep working hard. It starts in practice. We have to stay focused on our real goal and not get too far ahead of ourselves.”
Where do the Cougars, now No. 9 in the latest TD Top Ten, go from here with more than two months of season before them?
First, they must bounce back from a 54-40 defeat December 28 at the hands of VISAA power Cape Henry Collegiate (8-1) that sent them into the New Year’s break 6-3.
They must fill the gaps left by season-ending injuries to two mainstays: 6-6 senior Ayinde Budd (shoulder) and 6-4 junior Charles Geho (knee).
And they must stay true to their plan: practice and compete with purpose, adjust to different styles of play and situations, respond positively to adversity, and remain humble in victory and gracious in defeat.
“We’re still a work in progress,” said Harris, the Cougars’ third-year head coach. “We have a better flow, a better rhythm, and we’re hanging our hat on defending. We’re headed in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go. We’re nowhere near where we can be. It’s very cliché, very generic, but it’s the honest truth: we’re just trying to get better. That’s our goal.”