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Men's NCAA Tournament

A midseason change got Prairie View into a championship mindset

With only one loss in 2019, the Panthers now face Fairleigh Dickinson in the First Four

The last time the Prairie View A&M Panthers reached the NCAA men’s Division I basketball tournament, most of the players on the current roster weren’t yet born, or they were too young to know that the team had been labeled the “worst of the worst” in collegiate sports.

Today, there are several moments that parallel the team’s first appearance 21 years ago. However, they have a better record at 22-12 overall and 17-1 in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) and now are on a larger stage for only the second time in the program’s history.

The players are eager to continue showing the world the confidence they’ve gained this season.

“I actually feel great about [being in the First Four] because we’ve been the underdog all season,” said Prairie View guard Taishaun Johnson. “I feel like that’s an advantage to us because everybody is expecting us to lose, so we come out and play the way we’ve been playing and just making sure we just harp on what our strength is. I think we’ll be fine and we’ll shock the world.”

As easy as some of the victories this season seemed for the Panthers, a rocky start made it harder for the team to envision making it this far.

The 2018-19 season opener went as well as expected, with a confident 81-64 win over Santa Clara. But three days later, the momentum collapsed. A 91-80 loss to Baylor set off an 11-game losing streak, causing confusion within the program.

“Naturally, you think about the players’ mindsets and make sure they don’t lose their confidence and make sure they stay focused and hungry,” said Prairie View A&M assistant coach Landon Bussie. “When you’re losing games like that, it’s hard for them sometimes to come in and practice and still want to work hard when they see no reward behind it.”

As a matter of course, tensions mounted. Meltdowns occurred. Arguments ensued. Coaches and players struggled to find the chemistry they’d experienced early on. But as a team, they knew they had each other — and, unbeknownst to them, an unexpected ace in the hole: Christmas break.

“Everybody went home for Christmas and they were able to get the steam off their chests,” said Prairie View A&M guard Gerard Andrus. “Everybody was able to go back home and readjust themselves and look in the mirror at the person in front of them. We all came back with that mindset that we wanted to win. It all paid off, because with my coaches and as a team, we all just stuck together and we said we were going to get it right. That’s what really paid off. We stuck together and came together as a family.”

“The guys went home, spent time with their families,” Bussie added. “They took some time off and came back with a different mindset. Everyone came back locked in and focused. Everybody was together.”

Renewed, the team went on to win 10 straight games before falling to Texas Southern in February. That loss would turn out to be Prairie View A&M’s only defeat in 2019. The Panthers take that winning attitude into Tuesday night’s game against Fairleigh Dickinson in Dayton, Ohio.

Once unsure how far they’d go, Prairie View A&M’s players now know the sky is the limit. Andrus, who says he’s dreamed of playing in an NCAA tournament game since he was a kid, looks forward to proving the naysayers wrong.

“I told my brother that we were going to the tournament,” Andrus said. “I told him we’d win the SWAC [championship] and we were going to the tournament. Our team said it too. We really want this bad. We want to come to the NCAA tournament and bust brackets. That’s our plan.

“Nobody is expecting us to go out there and beat [Fairleigh] Dickinson or beat Gonzaga, but we’re gonna do it. We’re gonna show the world. That’s the plan.”

Maya Jones is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a native New Orleanian who enjoys long walks down Frenchmen Street and romantic dates to Saints games.