Men's Basketball

Mississippi Valley St. Coach Sean Woods doesn't have time to reminisce about UK

Mississippi Valley State Coach Sean Woods played for Kentucky in the "Christian Laettner game," when Laettner ended UK's NCAA Tournament trip in 1992.
Mississippi Valley State Coach Sean Woods played for Kentucky in the "Christian Laettner game," when Laettner ended UK's NCAA Tournament trip in 1992. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Prepare and practice. Avoid distractions. Play them one at a time ... even if your alma mater looms as the possible opponent the game after next. To play them two at a time would unleash indelible memories of how you made the most famous penultimate shot in NCAA Tournament history 20 years ago.

Memories and anniversaries aside, former Kentucky guard Sean Woods could not be moved off the task at hand: His Mississippi Valley State team playing Western Kentucky on Tuesday night.

Pardon the expression, but Woods sounded like — ugh — a coach.

"Well, that's what I am, now," he said with a laugh on Monday.

Woods was in Dayton, Ohio, site of the NCAA Tournament first-round game against WKU. Spiritually, he was not in Philadelphia, circa 1992, when his straight-on banker over Christian Laettner ignited a euphoria in Kentucky cut short by Laettner's buzzer-beat 2.1 seconds later. Nor was Woods in Louisville, where his Delta Devils would play Kentucky Thursday night should they beat Western.

"I think about it all the time," Woods said of the UK-Duke game, the so-called Christian Laettner game. "I lived it."

Then he added, "I'm at a different place now because I want to beat Western Kentucky. After we take care of this, then we can go down memory lane a little bit. Then we can talk about us playing Kentucky and what used to be."

To borrow a reference from Woods' UK coach, Rick Pitino, the precious present for the former Cat involves Mississippi Valley State playing Western Kentucky. The winner plays Kentucky, the NCAA Tournament's overall No. 1 seed.

"It all worked out the best it could as far as story lines are concerned," Woods said.

If his team's rise from a 1-11 start to the season to the school's first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2008 didn't make for a compelling enough story, then there's the expected attendance of President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron.

"Good deal," Woods said. "Our school needs it. We need everything we can get right now. To cap off the season like we did, first-round NCAA game with the president there, you can't beat that."

Money and exposure — especially money — being in short supply, Mississippi Valley State played its usual killer schedule of so-called guarantee games. Playing its first 12 games on the road made a lot of money. The team did not play a home game until Jan. 3 against Arkansas-Pine Bluff.

Woods, who had a 29-67 record in his first three seasons, cited a different approach to explain his team's fast finish: winning 20 of its last 21 games, including the Southwestern Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament championships.

"I didn't beat my guys up after games this year," Woods said. "I kept that in perspective."

With three starters as transfers — Paul Crosby (Binghamton), Kevin Burwell (Maryland-Eastern Shore) and Terrence Joyner (New Mexico State) — Woods knew he had a team that could contend for the conference championship. So he contained his impulse to belabor every mistake.

"Don't linger for more than that night on what happened good or what happened bad," he said.

When describing Mississippi Valley State's playing style, Woods evoked memories of his days as a Kentucky player. Fast pace. Pressure defense. Quick-trigger shooting.

"If we're making shots, we're hard to deal with," he said. "We're going to defend you and play hard and guard you tough for 94 feet and 40 minutes."

In a sense, the Delta Devils are descendents of Pitino's Bombinos and The Unforgettables.

"That's who I am," Woods said. "It's like you are who you are. You can take the kid out of the ghetto. But you still have those roots."

Just don't ask Woods to return to those roots. Not before his team plays Western Kentucky Tuesday night. The coach is too busy, what with winning the SWAC Tournament Saturday night, then participating in what Woods called a "little situation at school" that served as a Selection Sunday celebration. Then the team flew to Dayton Monday for a one-day preparation.

"This is a blessing I get to come close to home," Woods said before shifting back to coach mode. "Now, we get to come out and try to win a basketball game."

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