Advancing in the NCAA tournament last year has forever changed the Stephen F. Austin men's basketball program.
They've had the mindset to dream bigger and to make a university from the smallest town in Texas a household name. However, all hopes of making the NCAA tournament will be crushed if the Lumberjacks don't win two games this weekend.
“We have to win it,” said head coach Brad Underwood.
The team is persistent in taking it one game at a time as they did during conference play. If it's not broken, don't fix it.
“The way we're looking at it is we have to win the whole thing and that's what we're going to go out there and try to do,” said Thomas Walkup.
While every team in the tournament is different, they share one thing in common- one dream.
“The light at the end of the tunnel, which is that NCAA tournament,” said Underwood.
In order to live out the dream, it takes more than just playing the game of basketball. It becomes survival of the fittest to see who can come out on top of the conference tournament.
“There's a different energy in the air,” said Walkup. “Everybody's having great practices at this time. Everybody's prepping for their biggest game of the year because at any point it can be the last one.”
“There's no question everybody gets a shot of adrenalin, a shot of exuberance, and excitement when you go to a conference tournament,” said Underwood.
The emotions of tournament play are easy ones to get be stirred by, but when facing a team for a third time, some things never change.
“Teams know what we're going to do and we know what teams are going to do,” said Trey Pinkney.
The Lumberjacks enter the SLC Tournament with an RPI ranking at 45 among the nation's best, and understand the tournament serves as a must-win in order to relive their 2014 journey
“That experience was breathtaking,” said Pinkney.
It's an experience no team is willing to give up on being lucky enough to encounter.
“We're the team everybody wants to beat and so our team has to understand that,” said Underwood.
“You have to just play every game like it could be your last,” said Jacob Parker.
The Lumberjacks understand they can't allow the tournament to play mind games within themselves, and said they have to remember it's sometimes the simple details that lead to championships.
“The preparation is the most important thing. We pretty much stay true to who we are. We've won because we defend, we've won because we rebound, and we've won because we run good offense,” said Underwood.
There's a lot of emotions that dwell inside when riding into the tournament as the No. 1 seed, but nerves isn't one of them for the Lumberjacks.
“It's basically going to come down to execution and who's going to be more focused at that time,” said Pinkney. “It's exciting because the third time we see each other again, we know each other's tendencies even better than the previous times, and we're looking at each other like it's all or nothing right now. It's what we live for.”
The Lumberjacks are set to play rival Northwestern State in the tournament semifinals. The Demons made it past McNeese State 96-89 Thursday evening in Katy.
Stephen F. Austin will take the court at the Merrell Center, Friday at 5 p.m.
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