AKRON, Ohio – The three points hung there like the emotions caught in your chest after such a close loss.
Those three points – three small but very impactful points – caused hours of restlessness. They were the basis for the ‘what ifs’ and ‘what could have beens’ and the elusion of a state title. They were the destroyer until they became the motivator.
St. Vincent-St. Mary's boys basketball team ended last year three points shy of pushing more time to be crowned the state champions. Those three points could have turned into four for a victory, or maybe even more.
But when the buzzer sounded, the final score illuminated in Columbus Bishop Watterson's favor, 55-52.
Now, 363 days later, St. Vincent-St. Mary has the chance to put those three points behind it. The Irish will play Bishop Watterson in a Division II state semifinal at 2 p.m. on Thursday at Value City Arena in Columbus.
Will it be a game of redemption? Revenge? Or opportunity?
It depends on which member of the Irish team you ask.
Irish coach Dru Joyce: “I’m a believer and my bible says ‘Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord.’ I’m going to let the Lord handle revenge. This is an opportunity. This is an opportunity for us to do something that we’ve worked very hard for.”
Irish sophomore VJ King: “I see it as more of a ‘Get this monkey off my back’ type of game. … This is a game to kind of show that last year, it won’t happen again and to prove to the state that we won’t let it happen again.”
Irish senior Jalen Hudson: “It’s everything. It’s to get back. It’s a rematch. It’s revenge. It’s everything.”
Bishop Watterson coach Vince Lombardo weighed in on the rematch, saying: “We’re really going to try to minimize that stuff. It’s a new year. Obviously, that will be some motivation for them, I guess, the fact that we were able to defeat them a year ago.”
There is no calculator to measure motivation but for SVSM, its motivation has been fueled by a burning fire all year. This isn’t a big game just because it’s a state semifinal, not just for the opponent, but because teams are taught to leave it all out there. The Irish don’t feel like that was the case last year.
“We kind of let them dictate the game, I’d say for at least three quarters of it,” Hudson said. “We didn’t show up until the fourth quarter. That just shows us we’re really the better team.
”Going into this game, we have to play hard from the start.”
They’ll do anything their coach asks them to do – grab more rebounds, more steals, hustle faster – just so they can make sure this time the end result is different.
Joyce took the blame on his shoulders at the end of the game last year. The coach who has taken a team to the final four for nine of the past 14 years learned a lesson from it.
Sometimes you have to let your team go a bit and let them play.
“Those are those moments when you learn a lesson you wish you wouldn’t have,” Joyce said. “That’s how I kind of look at it when I look at last year.”
What also came from that three-point loss was a growth in his players.
“It’s the reason we get up and work every day, in my opinion,” King said. “We want it.”
King had sleepless nights for weeks after the state title game. Hudson admitted he hadn’t gotten over that loss until Tuesday of this week.
“They took something that I wanted the whole season that I worked for,” he said. “They just took it. It bothered me for a really long time. ... Now we’re back so I’m over it. We just got to do anything to get this win.”
Those three points could have come from any number of scoring opportunities. The fact is the Irish didn’t push themselves for three quarters to capitalize on those opportunities. Now they have a new opportunity to ease the pain of those three points.
“We came up short,” King said. “I can say all this kind of stuff we could have done, but at the end of the day we lost – no matter how many points we lost by. That’s who we see Thursday. We know what we’re playing for.”