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Six Lessons from the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournaments

By Sean Jensen, SportsEngine, 04/01/19, 1:00PM CDT


While kids may watch the games, they may not see the behind-the-scenes lessons that unfold

The 2019 edition of the NCAA Tournament's mustered a lot of madness already.

And while kids may watch the games, they may not see the behind-the-scenes lessons that unfold. Here are six of the lessons parents can draw upon as the final men’s and women’s NCAA basketball teams enter April — and approach immortality.

Play big, even if you’re not

At 5 foot 11, Jared Harper was the smallest player remaining, when the field was reduced to 16 teams. Despite a dominant high school career in suburban Atlanta, he was ranked 90th in the 2016 recruiting class, according to one projection site, and Auburn was one of two Division I schools that offered him a scholarship. The Tigers were devastated by the loss of Chuma Okeke, who carried them to an upset of North Carolina but suffered a torn ACL in that game, yet Harper and senior guard Bryce Brown combined to fill that huge void against Kentucky, which led by as many as 11 points. While Harper’s 24 points came via three-pointers and mid-range jumpers, Harper’s team-high 26 points, including 12 in overtime, came by driving hard to the rim with his experience, explosiveness and, most of all, heart. Kentucky simply had no answers for his bursts to the basket. In Auburn’s 77-71 overtime upset of Kentucky, Harper also contributed five assists, four rebounds, three steals, blocked two shots and nailed all 11 of his free throw attempts. “I just knew if I was going to get to the line, I was going to make the free throws," Harper said in his postgame comments. “I put a lot of work and a lot of pressure on myself outside of games like this to be able to make those same plays. So, sometimes in a game, it's no pressure at all for me.” Though known for football, Auburn’s basketball program has had modest success, but they are on a 12-game winning streak and are the first team to ever defeat Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky in three consecutive NCAA Tournament games. Named the Midwest Regional MVP, Harper deflected the credit to others after the upset of the Wildcats. “I know I can’t do it without any of my teammates,” Harper said, “and I know we are all going to be prepared and ready to go to compete for a national championship.” 

Sabrina Ionescu (Cody Glenn/ Getty Images)


The University of Oregon wasn’t a favorite to win the women’s national title. But their star player was among the top Player of the Year candidates. And in an 88-84 upset of No. 1 seed Mississippi State, Sabrina Ionescu didn’t disappoint, with a game-high 31 points. The 5-foot-11 guard from Romania is one of the most versatile collegiate basketball players in recent memory, already holding the NCAA record for triple-doubles.

In a close game that featured 11 ties and 15 lead changes, she provided critical shot after critical shot, scoring 14 fourth-quarter points, many of them from Steph Curry depths. With 1:20 remaining, she worked off a teammate’s screen, angled toward the basketball then stepped back at the top of the key and swished a three-pointer. “I think Sabrina made some really tough shots tonight,” Bulldogs coach Vic Schaefer said. “Obviously, she's a heck of a player. But I thought she made some really tough shots at the shot clock. That's what great players do. They're going to make shots when your team needs it. I thought she was really, really hard to guard.” Ionescu said afterwards that she didn’t dwell on the pressure. Her coach reminded them before taking the court to have fun. “We wouldn't take this moment for granted,” she said. “Regardless what the outcome was, we wanted to have fun together and continue to have fun, so we did.” Besides, Ionescu had another compelling reason to make her five final shots. “I didn’t want to go to overtime… I was also pretty tired,” she said. “Let me hit this and walk off to the Final Four.”

Be humble in victory

There were two unforgettable gestures by the winning sides in arguably the two best games — so far, at least — in this year’s men’s tournament. After a thrilling 77-76 win, Duke’s legendary head coach Mike Krzyzewski noticed Central Florida senior Dayon Griffin weeping. Coach K approached Griffin and consoled him with words of encouragement then hugged before they went their separate ways. “I feel bad that they lost,” Krzyzewski said. "They were deserving of winning. They were so good, and I'm so proud that those kids played at the level of their coach.” Krzyzewski was referring to Central Florida head coach Johnny Dawkins, who starred at Duke in the 1980s then, after a solid NBA career, returned to the Blue Devils as an assistant coach.

In an Elite Eight battle between Virginia and Purdue, the Boilermakers junior guard Carsen Edwards had one of the greatest individual performances in tournament history. He made 14 of 25 shots, including 10 threes, for 42 points. Virginia didn't play too shabby either; Cavaliers guard Kihei Clark hustled past half court to corral a rebound in the final seconds then rifled a pass to Mamadi Diakite, who immediately lofted the ball toward the basket for the game-tying shot that sent the game to overtime. But Purdue lost 80-75, with Edwards making a costly turnover down the stretch. Diakite expressed his admiration for his opponent twice in the game, including after the game was over.

Be gracious in defeat

There were few more stunning outcomes than Auburn’s thrashing of No. 1 seed North Carolina, 97-80 last Friday. And it was sophomore Chuma Okeke, who the Tar Heels had the most trouble with, scoring a team-high 20 points. But midway through the second half, after going hard toward the basket, his leg buckled underneath him. There was a hush over the arena. When he finally got to his feet, with assistance, several North Carolina players came over to encourage him. “I love that kind of thing, because I want to compete like crazy… but that’s the kind of kids I have,” Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams said afterwards. “…You don’t ever want to see something like that to happen. I want everyone to understand, my kids were going down there without me saying anything.”

Returning back to Dawkins, the Golden Knights head coach was the model of leadership and grace in defeat. His postgame speech is hard to watch — in the best ways possible. “I told you guys before, I love you guys. It's been amazing coaching this group. And like I said for us, we've got a lot of good memories, man. A lot of good memories,” Dawkins said, as several of the players cried. “We've accomplished a lot of amazing things this year. I know that doesn't do anything for us right now, but at some point in time it will. So again, I know this is gonna hurt. It's gonna hurt for a while. I've been in before and it's the same thing. But we're proud of you guys, proud of the effort and energy we gave all year long.”

Be mentally tough

No matter what happens Monday night, Tania Davis can hold her head high. Her sophomore season at the University of Iowa ended with a torn ACL in her right knee, then her junior season ended with a torn ACL in her left knee. “The second one was toughest one. You wonder ‘Why me? Why did this happen again?’ And then you keep grinding your way back,’’ Davis said. “Your teammates, coaches and family, they’re there for support, but it’s a tough road back.’’ Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said it would not have been surprised if Davis had stopped playing. “Nobody would have blamed her from walking away from the game," Bluder said. "We wouldn’t have batted an eye. It’s tough enough to deal with one ACL, but two in two years? It takes a special player to come back from that.’’ Davis credited that to her upbringing in “the tough part" of Flint, Michigan. “Basketball was my safe haven,” she said. “ Davis isn't the team’s star, but she does contribute an average of 10 points and five rebounds a game.

Do not overlook experience

The women’s tournament consistently features veteran teams and this year will be no exception. But the four remaining men’s team vying for a championship are a bit of a surprise. There were a lot of blue-chip freshmen this year, led by the exciting and dominating Zion Williamson of Duke. Though many of these players may not have standout NBA careers, they are thriving now because they’ve experienced high-pressure situations over the last few years. No one showcases that more than Kenny Goins, a 22-year-old, fifth-year senior walk-on who nailed the game-winning three-pointer against the Blue Devils. Meanwhile, Kentucky started four freshmen against an Auburn team that only played juniors and seniors. According to Yahoo Sports, those four freshman starters and one other freshmen that was a part of Kentucky’s rotation went a combined 2-of-17 on three-pointers and committed nine turnovers. In the Purdue-Virginia matchup, there was only one freshman starter, guard Kihei Clark, who scored just two points and was rated the 46th point guard in the 2018 class. In this instant gratification age, the upcoming games are a reminder that there’s simply no substitute for experience.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

About Sean Jensen

Sean Jensen was born in South Korea, but he was raised in California, Massachusetts and Virginia, mostly on or near military bases. Given his unique background, he's always been drawn to storytelling, a skill he developed at Northwestern University and crafted for the last 16 years, almost exclusively covering the NFL. Sean lives in a Minneapolis suburb with his wife, two children and dog. Read more

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