PASADENA A wise Muppet once said, “Do or do not. There is no try.”
Unfortunately for Aaron O’Brien and the University of New Brunswick Varsity Reds, they did not.
What they didn’t do, specifically, was make the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) men’s basketball playoffs, thanks to a catastrophic collapse that saw them go 2-7 to close out the regular season schedule and drop out of the sixth and final playoff spot they had held in their grasp for much of the year.
“It’s sad, because our consistency within the last two games especially, and you could almost say four games, really showed,” said the 19-year-old Pasadena native, who ranked seventh in the AUS during his sophomore season with 18 blocks.
Their only two victories down the stretch were a pair of mid-February games against Memorial University of Newfoundland, after they had lost six in a row previously. Following that much-needed boost of positivity, the V-Reds had to close out the season with a two-game set against the first-place Cape Breton University, a team that had only tasted defeat once all year.
Trouble was, the V-Reds needed at least one win to qualify for the post-season.
Despite spirited efforts in both affairs, they came up short — with losses of 88-75 and 86-70 — and could only lament lost opportunities as St. Mary’s University edged them out by two points for the final playoff position.
“That was a heartbreaker,” O’Brien said. “It’s tough because you have to make hay when the sun shines and, unfortunately, we couldn’t do that.
“We put up a good fight at the end of it against Cape Breton — it was a big indicator for us that when we get in there and have that heart, we can definitely compete — but it would’ve been nice not to be in that position,” he added, alluding to earlier three-point losses to Dalhousie and University of Prince Edward Island in vital games with four points on the line.
“We feel the way we were playing at the end of it, if we had gotten in the playoffs, who knows what could have happened?”
The losing slide was also rough on O’Brien personally, as he was relegated from starting each game to coming off the bench for a string of eight games, up until the season finale when he was moved back among the starting five again.
Not one to sulk or point fingers, the six-foot-nine centre placed the onus squarely on himself and his lack of consistency, an issue he admits has sporadically plagued his performances in his two seasons with the V-Reds so far.
“When I played well, I played well, but sometimes I’d come out slow ... coach (Brent Baker) talked to me and said he’d try bringing me off the bench to see how I played,” he said. “As much as the starting role was a big thing for me, it seemed like, at this point, I was playing better off the bench.”
While he was quick to accept the situation this year, he plans to work his way back into the starting lineup permanently next season. If anything, the demotion served as an eye-opener for the kid who, before moving up to the AUS, was accustomed to basically dominating every basketball game he had played since junior high.
“Things aren’t handed to you — if you want something, you have to work for it,” O’Brien said. “To be completely honest, in my opinion, if I put in more work I could have been right there, but I won’t let that go to waste. I’ll put in the work over the summer and, hopefully, come back much better.”
O’Brien was back home from school this week for March break and, after a quick stop into St. John’s to visit his grandmother over the weekend, was heading back to Fredericton to finish up his academic year and begin preparing for the next season of basketball. Like last year, he figures he’ll stick around the New Brunswick capital until June to take advantage of gym time with his V-Reds coaches, where he can receive extensive hands-on instruction just not available to him here.
From there, he wants to return home for the summer — “You only get to go home so much.” — and begin an off-season training regimen he considers to be “make-or-break” for his varsity hoops career.
“The sky’s the limit,” he said. “I’ve been told more than once by my coaches, if I put my work into it, I could be a big force in the AUS, but I’m not where I’d like to be right now.
“I’d like to be up there as, when you come in to play me, you don’t want to come in to play me ... you know what I mean?”