The Spires spent the days leading up to the start of the NAIA Tournament on March 6 enjoying some of the sights and sounds of Branson, and some team-building recreational activities like ziplining.
The focus was on keeping the players who hadn't previously experienced the tournament calm and focused.
"It's such a different venue when you go down there," said Head Coach Jon Bishop. "You only get 10 minutes of pre-game warmup, instead of your usual 20 or 25… You get on the floor, you take a couple of shots and boom, they’re tipping it up because they have eight games in one day.
"It's a lot for these kids to handle. That, plus all the media obligations that you have, the practices — you’re practicing some place new. I think it’s almost impossible to get them prepared."
In the end, he said, coaches have to lean on the tourney veterans to help the new guys figure it out.
Mo. Rep. Jeff Justus and wife, Glenda, served as local hosts for the Saint Mary team. USM Assistant Coach Troy Brown received a gift commemorating his own playing days from Glenda Justus.
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"You try to stay as sharp as possible...You try to stay sharp. You try to get in as much prep work as you can, you try to break down film on your opponent as much as possible, but at the end of the day, you have to go down there and you have to play well."
The game against Chicago's Saint Xavier University — the last game of Day One of the tournament — got away from the Spires early.
"I didn't think we were tight going into it. We were pretty prepared mentally," Coach Bishop said. "But the way the game played out, after the first three or four minutes, I looked at my staff and I said we’re tight again (like last year).
"The same shots we made all year long that helped us win 22 games were the same shots in the first half that we missed and I think when you go down there, its so important to play well early because it takes all the pressure off. When you keep missing shots, especially early, the next one gets a little bit harder and the next one gets a little bit harder than the one before. And that’s kind of what happened to us."
After falling behind early, the Spires made it a single-possession game against Saint Xavier. But the Cougars stretched their lead to eight going into the half.
"Bad offense leads to bad defense," Coach Jon Bishop said. "I thought that we got through it in the first half and then in the second half, it just reared its ugly head and we couldn’t get over the hump.
"And then (Saint Xavier) got on a roll and they played really well, and that’s a hard thing to overcome."
The Spires walked back into the locker room with the final score Saint Xavier 82, USM 60...