The first NCAA Tournament game I ever coached in as a head coach was at Rhode Island College in 2007. We had just won the Little East Tournament for the first time and we were hosting 4 teams at the Murray Center, matching up with Coast Guard in the first round. We were 24-3 heading into the NCAA Tournament.
It was a new experience for all of us and I’m not sure any of us knew how good we were. We were really good, and probably considered a heavy favorite at home against Coast Guard, a team we had beaten earlier that year. But Coast Guard gave us all we could handle in a back and forth game. They also brought like 4 busses full of cadets to our campus to watch the game, so the atmosphere was electric. There was great energy in the building.
It was a close game most of the way, and we couldn’t get a good rhythm. We’d take a lead but then couldn’t get away from them. With about 9 minutes to play, Coast Guard took the lead. They had the momentum and the game was still tight.
We had a very deep team and I had used 5 or 6, sometimes 7 guys off the bench all year. But at that point I felt the game was in the balance and I needed to leave my starters out on the floor. Generally I liked to get my “finishers” out of the game just under the 10 minute mark so I could get them back in fresh for the last 6 or 7 minutes of the game. But here I decided to stay with them. I felt like the game was too tight to take them out.
We continued to battle back and forth in a tight game that never got more than 2 points away from being even. With about 5:30 to go, my starting point guard Kinsey Durgin pulled up for a 3 and banged it off the backboard. It didn’t have a chance. He had no legs left, and just flung it up with his arms. I knew I had to take him out, so I put a sub in for him. On the next possession, Tirrell Hill, my starting 2-guard made a really lazy turnover and couldn’t get back on defense. He was gassed. I knew I had pushed it too far with him and had to get him out.
Tirrell was noticeably upset when he came out of the game. Kinsey was sitting on the bench leaning forward staring at me dying to get back in the game. I walked with Tirrell and sat him next to Kinsey. I said “You guys are gassed. I should have gotten you out earlier. Catch your breath and relax. You are going back in. We are going to need you win the game.”
Sometimes just a minute on the bench can give a kid the rest he needs and reset his mentality. You don’t have to leave him on the bench for long. But you can’t be afraid to take your best players out of the game, even if it’s close and headed down the stretch. I learned that that night in the NCAA Tournament. Luckily I saw two plays where it made it clear to me they were gassed, and I knew I had to get them out of the game.
Both of them went back in with about 3 minutes to go and made key plays down the stretch to help us win the game. We went on to the Elite 8 that year, losing to national champion Amherst on their home floor.
Don’t be afraid to give your best players a blow when they need it, no matter what the situation. Sometimes just a minute or two of rest, and allowing them to shut their mind down, can make a difference.