Matt Jones was a bit perplexed.
Here he was leading DeSoto (Texas) into what was widely considered a gimmee first-round playoff game against Ellison (Killeen, Texas) on Feb. 21 and the Eagles were getting out of character.
DeSoto had made easy work of Ellison earlier this season, routing them by 60 points, but that was then, and this was, well, the playoffs.
“That was a completely different team that we played,” said Jones, a junior shooting guard who is ranked No. 22 in the ESPNU 60. “They were fighting so hard out there and they really brought it to us at first. We had to regroup and come out and match their intensity, match their execution. We learned a lot from that win. You’ve gotta bring it in the playoffs.”
As cliché as it is accurate, it’s a realization that every high school baller has come to in the last few weeks: Go hard or go home.
“That’s the bottom line,” said Jones, who is committed to Duke. “If you don’t bring it every night you’re going home, period.”
It’s a concept that Chris Walker wished his team would’ve had the foresight to fully grasp before getting booted from the playoffs a week ago.
“I feel like we kinda knew that we’d have to raise our game to another level, but I don’t know if we knew to the level that we needed to,” said Walker, a junior forward at Holmes County (Bonifay, Fla.) who is ranked No. 7 in the ESPNU 60. “It’s so important to play harder than you’ve ever played before. It sounds crazy, but even your best game in the regular season probably won’t be enough in the playoffs. You’ve got to go to another higher level.”
That goes for the country’s most elite program too.
Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.), the top-ranked team in the POWERADE FAB 50, has already broken a school record for wins with 43 this season and even though they’re record is, by definition, perfect, Warriors’ coach Steve Smith said his team will have to raise its level of play when they head over to China where they will play nine games against international competition.
“It’s very important to continually push yourself, especially at the end of the year,” said Smith, who was recently named Naismith High School Coach of the Year. “We’ve consistently challenged our guys and we’ll continue to do that as we come down the stretch. It’s up to them to respond, but they’ve been doing it all year. The kids have to buy in because at the end of the year everyone’s typically worn down.”
L.J. Rose has definitely felt the fatigue of a long, grueling season, but his motivation to push through the tired legs, mental fatigue and small nagging injuries is to consider the flip-side.
“It could all be over if you give in to all that,” said Rose, a senior point guard at Westbury Christian (Houston) who is signed to Baylor. “Everyone’s tired so you’re all still even. But when you’re in this position you don’t think about how tired you are. You just think about what it’s gonna take to get the job done. That’s the main focus.”
He said at this point it doesn’t matter how it happens, as long as his team wins, he’s happy.
“That’s another major difference between the regular season and the playoffs,” Jones said.
“Regular season you can have a bad game and get down about it and be upset, but now it doesn’t even matter. If I don’t score at all and we win, I am so excited. I don’t even give it two thoughts. You just win any way that you can.”