(Photo Courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics)

Keep shooting.

Throughout the National Championship game, that's what I remember my teammates telling me. Keep shooting.

Most people work their entire careers to play for a National Championship, and now that the moment was finally here, I couldn't buy a bucket. Whether it was layups or jumpshots it didn't matter...it felt like almost every shot I took was off the mark. As we took our final timeout of the game, I was 5-20 from the field.

And yet the message was the same. If I got an open look, my teammates wanted me to shoot it. No matter how poorly I had played, no matter how out of rhythm I was, my teammates had the confidence in me to shoot the ball. I think it's similar to the approach God has...no matter what happened before, it's never too late to turn things around.

I think it was an easy message for my teammates to pass along, because it was only days earlier that we had lived it out.

When we played UConn in the Final Four, we blew a five-point lead with 21 seconds to go. We were up 79-74 before the Huskies make a 3-pointer to cut it to just 79-77, and moments later they stole the inbounds pass and laid it in to send the game to overtime.

Then in OT the same thing happened.

We were leading 89-84 with 44 seconds remaining when UConn stormed back yet again. They hit a jumper to cut the lead to 89-86, and that's when they fouled me. Just make one free throw, I thought, and you can make it a two-possession game. All it takes is one.

That's when I missed the first shot. The referee gave me the ball for my second free throw, and I missed that one too. Sure enough, UConn came right back down and tied the game yet again, this time with 29 seconds to go.

Keep shooting.

A lot of teams could have caved under that situation, having blown two leads in the final minute, but we still had all the confidence in the world. It didn't matter that the other team had won 11 championships since 1995, and was 36-0 at that point. There's nobody I'd rather have in that moment than my coach and my teammates.

As the final seconds were melting away and I was still near midcourt, I realized I was probably going to take the final shot. Even though I had just missed two key free throws moments before, the game was in my hands. My teammate set a screen to switch defenders on me, and as I got to the right wing with four seconds left, I jabbed toward the baseline to see if my defender would bite. That's when I stepped back and let it fly.

Swish.

 
 

By the grace of God, we were going to the National Championship game. And as badly as I had played in the title game, I knew we could still win the game. What I didn't know was that history was going to repeat itself.

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Thomas Hager