JOHN SHURNA and Drew Crawford are their studs. But, as the 'Cats prepared for last Sunday's visit to Illinois, their concentration was elsewhere. "The coaches (then) talked about how guys like me and Sobo (point Dave Sobolewski) had to be ready to shoot," remembers the junior guard Reggie Hearn. "With Johnny and Drew being the first and fourth leading scorers in the Big Ten, they're probably going to focus on them. So I knew going in, I'd probably have a few open shots.". . .
THAT MESSAGE delivered by the coaches not outlined the Xs and Os of a game plan. It also buoyed Hearn, who just two seasons ago was a little-used and lesser-known walk-on. "I think it really helped me," he says. "I think that's the kind of player I've always been. When I know a coach has confidence in me, I have a lot more confidence in myself and that really helps out on the floor.". . .
REGGIE HEARN, at that game's start, did indeed find himself open. "But as open as I was," he remembers, "I did not expect to be that open. I'm just glad I was able to knock them down.". . .
HE KNOCKED his first three-pointer at 15:28 and his second, at 14 minutes even. He knocked down his third at 12:10, his fourth just 50 seconds before halftime, and ended that half six-of-six overall and four-of-four on his threes and leading his team with 16 points. "Three of the four I was pretty positive as soon as I let it go," he recalls. "One of them, I was, 'All right, cool. I guess I'm feeling it.' So, yeah. For the most part, I was feeling good.". . .
THAT FEELING arrives when an athlete finds himself in that place we call the zone and then, often, he will describe how time now seems to slow down and the basket looks as big as an ocean. "I don't know if I could say anything like that," Hearn himself will say of his time in that zone. "All I can say is it felt really good. I wasn't really thinking about it. As soon as I caught it, if I was open, I was going up in one, smooth motion, which is the way it should always be. I was just really feeling good about my stroke. I was feeling good about myself.". . .
THIS WAS far different from the way he often felt during his first two seasons, which were mottled by those practices when he (by his own admission) did not labor full-bodied or at all well. "Some of the days were frustration, not being able to play, feeling that I didn't have a chance," he will say, looking back on them. "Some days had to do with maybe not feeling well physically. Some days it was just mentally, school, things going on in my head, knowing that when I was done I had to go home and was going to be up all night writing a paper, things like that. It was just a combination of things that I think pretty much all the guys go through, not just here, but all around the nation. It's about trying to have a mindset that when you come here and step on the floor, it's an outlet for all the other things going on. I think I've progressively gotten better at that and now try to give it my all each and every practice.". . .
IT NEVER did get so bad that he hated the thought of coming to practice. "I wouldn't say I dreaded it," he goes on. "I think I thought of it as an outlet somewhat, especially scout team. I enjoyed playing scout team a lot, being able to be some of the best guys in the Big Ten at that point. (Demetri) McCamey for Illinois or E'Twaun Moore for Purdue. Those were really fun times for me. But I admit there were times where it was frustrating when the scout team was playing defense for a half-hour, an hour in practice when the starters were working on offense. But, you know, that's part of the gig. That's part of what comes with playing basketball.". . .
NOR DID it get so bad that he thought of quitting the game all together. "No, no, no. I never got to that point," he concludes. "There were times before I got here when I thought, 'Do I want to pursue basketball in college?' But since then, there's never been a sense of quitting. There's been times, going through droughts, where you're just not feeling the passion for the game. But all that accumulated and led up to the point where I am now, where I'm really enjoying the game and feeling the passion for it.". . .
BUT THAT memory of Reggie Hearn not giving his all, that old snapshot of Reggie Hearn beaten down and frustrated, those realities do stand in stark contrast to Reggie Hearn at Fort Wayne's Snider High School, which he not only led his team to its first ever state championship game appearance. It is also where, as a senior, he was the IHSAA's Mental Attitude Award Winner, a winner acclaimed for his mental attitude, his scholarship, his leadership and his athletic ability. "Well. I think playing here in college was a lot tougher than in high school, especially not being able to play the first couple years," he will say when the dichotomy of those images is pointed out to him. "But I think you're right. It definitely took a toll on that attitude I supposedly had in high school. But. You know.". . .
HE SIGHS, then thinks for a moment and now, finally, says, "I think that's what it's all about sometimes. You've just got to get through the hard times. . .(and) I think the first couple of years really tested me. But I, I don't want to make it sound like there were times when I was going to quit or was being negative or wasn't being part of the team and wasn't filling my role. I think in saying there were times I was frustrated and things like that, I was just trying to describe the usual ups-and-downs I think pretty much every player has.". . .
BUT NOT many players have the experiences that then festooned Reggie Hearn, who back home coached at the YMCA and tutored elementary school students and taught Sunday school classes at his church and was involved in Youth Leadership of Fort Wayne. Often, as he struggled through those first two years, he would look back on those involvements and remember. "Definitely," he says. "Some of those things, the Y ball coach, the leadership, even Sunday school leader in my church, I was sitting there, I was tutoring these kids on things like working hard and working through things, then here I was myself kind of struggling with that. So I kind of remembered that I was trying to teach those principles to the kids, and I was in essence reminding myself of those things. I was like, 'You're teaching these kids you have to work hard and stick to things and get through ups-and-downs. Well, you need to do that yourself. Practice what you preach.'". . .
REGGIE HEARN ultimately did just that, he practiced what he preached, and last Sunday in Champaign he missed just one of the eight shots he took and finished with a career-high 20 points and was an important player in the 'Cats upset of the Illini. Now, as they prepare to host Iowa on Thursday, he is a walk-on no longer. He is a starter and an integral part of that puzzle that is any team. Still, says he, this does not mean he now feels any more part of the whole than he once did. "There really hasn't been that much of a change," he says instead. "A lot of the guys here, coaches included, everybody's pretty inclusive. It was more about me getting in the right mindset and continuing to work hard.". . .
BUT, IN REALITY, there has been a change. For now, to conclude, Reggie Hearn will offer up a big grin and finally say, "It's always more fun when you play. Definitely."
A couple quick notes: (1) Often, during his four years, 'Cat coach Bill Carmody has pushed John Shurna to be selfish, to demand the ball, to realize that he is his team's best weapon and to not be afraid to take over. That is just what he did in the second half against the Illini, though (true to his nature) he still has trouble owning up to that fact. "Kind of," he would say when we asked if that happened. "But, you know, I got subbed out real quick, then came back in and just kind of thought we were struggling to find a basket. Fortunately, I was open and my teammates found me in spots to score." But, we asked, it's not conscious on your part? "I realize now it's February and this is it," he said here. "So just lay it all out there."
And (2) there is, as we've noted before, this reality in any sport: When a team wins a number of close games and finds itself in another, it collectively wonders just how are they going to pull this one out. But when it loses a number of close games and finds itself in another, it can collectively wonder about how they are going to blow this one. So, after the 'Cats dropped three close ones, we wondered how they skirted that trap to topple the Illini by four. "I think a lot of that, I was actually thinking about this during the game, kind of toward the end of the Illinois game," answered Drew Crawford. "Instead of thinking about ways to keep yourself from losing, you've got to think about ways to win and really know you're a capable team, you're capable of making plays down the stretch. That's what's expected of you and that's what you should do. That's the mindset we have to have, find ways to win the game and not ways not to lose it."
Were the 'Cats, we asked, playing not to lose in those earlier games?
"Ah, maybe a little bit, a little bit. We were struggling to make those plays down the stretch, and on Sunday we were able to do that. That's huge for us. Being able to close out games is big, and that's the right mindset to have. Think about ways to win the game."