Tuesday, February 28, 2017
It's the last Monday in February, and the start of the Ohio Valley Conference tournament in Nashville, Tennessee -- and all of March Madness -- is just days away.
As Southeast Missouri State women's basketball coach Rekha Patterson sits in the program's conference room, she talks about her two seniors, Bri Mitchell and Olivia Hackmann, both of whom are preparing for their final moments of college basketball, and both of whom are, at that moment, sitting in Patterson's office next door.
"They could be, literally, in the office right now not saying a word," Patterson says. "Not on their phones, just not saying a word. That's Bri and 'O.'"
The duo, which Patterson calls her "silent assassins," may be quiet of voice, but their actions have spoken for themselves in their time at Southeast. Both reached the 1,000-point scoring plateau this season (just 18 women are members of that club, yet Hackmann and Mitchell did it concurrently), both are among the top 15 on the school's all-time scoring list and both have appeared in more than 110 games for the Redhawks. Mitchell is top six all-time in assists, and her current campaign is ninth among single-season assist records; Hackmann is in the top eight in 3-pointers and top 10 in blocks.
Perhaps most importantly, they are the only two Redhawks in the last eight years to help Southeast to back-to-back OVC tournaments.
Yet for both, while performing on the court has been straight-forward, developing into leaders has been more of a project.
"I know Coach 'P' really tried to develop my leadership skills," Hackmann says. "When I was here as a freshman, I wouldn't hardly say a word to anybody. I was very shy. But you grow up and you step out of your box."
Mitchell, even going into what might be her final college game, says she's still focused on improving that quality.
Her coach smiles as she says her two seniors still don't talk enough on the floor.
"They are two of the most quiet kids," Patterson says. "Now, you get Bri talking about shoes, and you can talk for days. You get Olivia talking about nutrition, and you can talk for days. Everything else? Hmm. Very similar like that.
"But they also will tell their teammates, 'C'mon, I need you guys. We need to do this.' They lead by example. Nobody is going to work harder than them. Nobody is going to give more than them. That's what seniors do. This is it."
The journey to this all-important week -- the one the team almost didn't get -- hasn't always been easy for either player. Both had to deal with a regime change midway through their careers, with Patterson replacing Ty Margenthaler after the 2014-15 season. And both had their own personal obstacles.
For Mitchell, it was about learning to take a better mental approach to the game and her development, something she says Patterson and her coaching staff has helped change.
"I really appreciate Coach 'P,'" Mitchell says. "I was the type of player with a bad attitude, but with her, it's like she understands me. My attitude has gone away. Me approaching things (with a bad attitude) has gone away.
"I listen to the coaches more. I listen to what they tell me, and I do what they tell me; (I'm) in the gym getting shots up. That's different from when I got here and I just would sit around and chill."
Nowadays, Mitchell has become a respected, if quiet, veteran who leads the team in scoring (15.4 points per game). Her attitude adjustment has helped her develop her depth as a player -- while her superb athleticism and patented dribble-drive spin move are still her calling cards, she's also a threat on the pull-up jumper, is a legitimate playmaker and will shoot the 3 -- and as a person.
"The fact that she even said that, admitted to that," Patterson says. "I try to tell them, 'Look, nobody's perfect. We're all going to make mistakes.' ... Hopefully, they've learned it's OK to make mistakes. Own your mistakes, right? Grow from them.
"I think that's a big thing for Bri, to say that. I think anyone who would have known her her freshman year would not expect that. I think the way her teammates respect her and think of her says the world of how she's grown in that area."
Hackmann's challenges have been different. It's impossible to tell her story without the injuries that have ravaged her last two years, with a foot fracture forcing her to redshirt last season and return for this one, during which she fractured the same foot in January and has since been sidelined.
Sitting silent on the bench could have rendered Hackmann a spectator, so she was forced to learn how to still contribute and share her new perspective with teammates in order to help the squad.
"You definitely have to be more vocal whenever you're not playing," Hackmann says. "You have to tell them what to do and what you're seeing. Maybe they haven't seen it, so you have to verbally explain that to them. You can't physically show them, so that was a huge thing. At the same time, it's good to look at it from a different view. You might be able to tell them, 'This is what I'm seeing, so you might want to try this.'
"It was definitely a whole new thing for me, and it kind of opened my eyes."
Of course, personal development is rarely an easy thing. Patterson says she definitely had to provide motivation to get Mitchell and Hackmann to more fully realize their potential.
"I had to push them," Patterson says. "We had one of those good old, I think coaches and teams like to call them 'come to Jesus meetings' there. I was really honest with them individually and as a team. I told Olivia she was selfish, and it had nothing to do with wanting to score. If you're out there on the floor and you're not saying a word and you know your team needs it, you're being selfish because you want to stay in your comfort zone. I told Bri she was the exact same way.
"... I've had to challenge them to be better. It's not that they don't want to, they're just concerned with their teammates' feelings. There's nothing wrong with that; there's a time and place for it, and sometimes on the basketball court is not the place for it."
It's certainly not that the two players don't care.
After a loss to Austin Peay in Saturday's regular-season finale put Southeast's postseason future in jeopardy, a bleary-eyed Mitchell came to the postgame press conference from what had clearly been an emotional locker room.
When things fell the right way to vault the Redhawks back into the postseason, nobody was more excited than the upperclassmen.
"Saturday I was just hurt," Mitchell says. "I thought it was going to be my last game. My last college game. After I heard we were going to the tournament, I just started smiling. My mood changed fast.
"We appreciate this opportunity very much. At the same time, no team wants to just sit there and have your fingers crossed. So we appreciate it, but we're just ready to go play."
Hackmann, especially, values another chance. On Saturday, she was in uniform for the first time since Jan. 14. She got what might have been one final start on Senior Day, promptly fouling after the tipoff and walking off the court to applause from the crowd.
Not exactly the way one dreams of wrapping up a career.
"It obviously wasn't what I envisioned at the beginning of the year," Hackmann says, "but it's been a crazy ride. So I was excited to at least put the jersey on and get out on the court and at least kind of feel what it's like to be on the court again."
With new postseason life comes one more opportunity for Hackmann to go out -- at least a little bit more -- on her own terms.
"Definitely. It kind of gives you, I mean, I'm obviously really, really excited," Hackmann says. "You're continuing to play on, so the longer we play on, the happier I'll be."
Hackmann has been medically cleared to return, and Patterson says her contribution in Nashville will be predicated on the player's comfort level. In fact, the situation is harder on the coach than it is the player.
"Her eyes had a glimmer to them," Patterson says about Hackmann's response to the news. "It was almost like it was Christmas morning. It may have been better than Christmas morning.
"I see her telling me, 'Coach, don't coach me scared.' I was honest with her. I said, 'Listen, I'm scared to hurt you.' And she said, 'Coach, you tell us all the time you can't play scared. You need to take your own advice.' She literally said that to me today, and that's someone who would never, ever speak like that before."
But this is not the same Hackmann who came to Cape Girardeau as a quiet freshman, or even the one who kept her mouth shut when Patterson arrived ahead of her first senior season.
Nor is it the same Mitchell who wouldn't say a word while approaching everything with a chip on her shoulder.
The personal growth of the two seniors has been critical to the development of SEMO's program under Patterson. Even if they're still OK with sometimes embracing the quiet.
"They have matured and they have developed, and I'm really proud of the young women they are right now," Patterson says. "... But I'm so happy that they don't have to look back and say, 'I had a disappointing career because we made it to the conference tournament one time.' And they are building a tradition here. Those seniors from last year, they started it with the help of these young ladies, and now they're continuing it.
"They both blossomed into this beautiful flower, and it's fun being on this journey with young people, as you see them go through that and you hope you just don't mess it up."
Southeast opens the OVC tournament as the No. 8 seed against top-seeded Belmont at 1 p.m. today at Municipal Auditorium in Nashville.
The victor will face the winner of No. 4 UT Martin and No. 5 Austin Peay in a semifinal at noon Friday.
The Bears were the league's regular-season champions, going undefeated in league play and 24-5 overall.
The two teams met once during the season, with the Redhawks (13-16 overall, 7-9 OVC) remaining within three points at halftime and five points after three quarters before falling 89-77.
Patterson believes the tournament is Belmont's to lose, but a previous competitive battle and a generally wide-open conference give everyone hope.
"Who can beat them? You have to believe," Patterson says. "You have to realize it's a one-game season for everybody."
The team continues to preach its mantra of extremely hard, extremely tough and together and a focus on not allowing Belmont to get anything easily -- the Bears, Patterson says, are good enough to beat you without making things easy on them.
For a team that was half an inch from staying at home this week, there's a lot that feeds into the excitement.
"That ball rims a little different, and we're sitting on the outside looking in," Patterson says. "But it did what it did, and now we have a chance. You can't look ahead. Belmont can if they want to, I'm OK with that. But we have to be extremely focused on what we need to do to play our best basketball. And then anything can happen -- it's March Madness."