I’ll always remember when my teammates had my back after I was given the biggest defensive assignment of my life.
After I saw that we were going to play Davenport in the Final Four, I instantly felt a tinge of anxiousness. I knew how good Davenport was, and I remembered specifically one player from when they knocked us out in the Elite 8 last season. Dominez Burnett. This dude was good, I mean really good. He won NAIA National Player of the Year two years in a row and was the all time leading collegiate scorer in the state of Michigan, scoring over 2800 points.
I had a feeling that I was going to be given the responsibility to guard him, and thinking about doing this on my own created some nervousness. But as my teammates started talking to me and encouraging me about building a wall and guarding him as a team, a sense of confidence began to grow inside of me. By the time the ball tipped, I do not think I had ever been more energized to play in a game.
It was obvious from the tip that it was going to be a fast paced and physical game. These guys were aggressive and athletic, an extremely well-coached team. Each possession, I focused on Burnett’s tendencies and stuck to the game plan given by our coaches. I tried to make it hard for him to catch the ball, and every time he did I thought ‘shade him to his left hand, stay solid, be physical and beat him to the spot.’
These were great thoughts, but he was such a good player that even executing all of them to perfection would not be enough. It would take a team effort to limit a player of this caliber, and I remember every time he caught the ball hearing teammates on both sides of me yelling that they were in my gap or they had my help.
There was one play that I specifically remember a teammate making that was a game changer. Lane sacrificed his body and took a charge, giving Burnett his 5th foul with just under 2 minutes to go.
We walked off the court with a tough win, and Coach Tonagel said in the locker room it might have been the best defensive performance by an IWU team in 11 years. He mentioned that Burnett finished the game with 7 points! When he gave me a big shoutout in front of the team, I knew that the credit went to the way we had played defense as a team. The coaches had been talking constantly about ‘building a wall’ and I remembered during the game that every time Burnett caught the ball that my teammates had executed this to perfection.
Having a great individual game is fun, but nowhere near as satisfying as accomplishing something as a unified group. I’ll never forget the energy and courage my teammates gave me as they encouraged me and had my back and as we together ‘built a wall’ to stop one of the best players the NAIA has ever seen.