A year ago in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament semifinals, Matt Hein couldn’t get the ball up the Scottrade Center court against Southern Illinois.
A redshirt freshman, he entered late in a 63-50 Illinois State win, but after two turnovers and a foul in three horrifying minutes, Redbird coach Dan Muller had to remove Hein and put senior star Paris Lee back in.
It’s not easy to forget things like that. It stuck with Hein throughout a transformative offseason. A sliver of it may still be in the recesses of his mind.
For the most part, he has “moved on,” he says. Saturday served to illustrate the extent of that movement. As Muller pointed out, Hein was playing against “the same team” and in “the same game (semifinals).” But in no other way was this the same.
Hein entered in the first half and sank a 3-pointer from the corner. On a possession shortly after, he shot an airball. Soon after, Hein was open in the corner again and fired again.
The sophomore guard had nine points in the opening half, helping ISU to a 36-29 lead. He finished with 12, one shy of his career high, to go with five rebounds, two steals, one assist and one — just one — turnover.
He played 29 minutes in a 76-68 overtime victory … 26 more than in last year’s meltdown.
“I was working so hard in the offseason just preparing for this moment,” Hein said. “That’s what I came here for, to help this team win. I feel last year here … I put it behind me.
“At the beginning of the season I said, 'Move on. I’ve thought about it for most of the offseason … I’m done with it.’”
The 6-foot-3 Hein walked into Scottrade Center on Saturday averaging 3.9 points and 21.6 minutes per game. So he has played regularly in this 18-14 season … against all odds in light of the manner in which he ended last season.
He became an easy target for fans. Hein is never going to wow you. He knows that. He is not always smooth. He is to basketball what Hunter Pence is to baseball … a guy who can look unorthodox in his execution, but often finds a way.
His story can be told in simple terms really. Hard work pays off. He worked and worked and worked in the months following that dreadful Saturday last March in St. Louis.
Three hundred and sixty-five days later, he had many of his detractors roaring in approval as ISU earned a return trip to the title game.
“You try not to pay attention to it,” Hein said of fan criticism directed his way. “It’s a little bit of motivation, but I just come out here and play.
“Any college fan base, they’re competitive like you are. They want to win. If you’re not doing your job, they going to get on you. I feel like they did that. But now, look where I am after hard work.”
It was difficult to envision a year ago. Muller credits Hein’s progression to his “development and his toughness,” but added: “Matt had a great year and was part of huge wins throughout the year. It is somewhat of a coincidence it’s the same team, same game and he had this huge game. But he’s had games like this throughout the year. It’s part of why we’re playing well.”
Milik Yarbrough saw it coming in June, July, August.
ISU’s leading scorer and a first-team all-conference pick, Yarbrough knew what Hein was doing in late night pickup games with his teammates.
“Matt has made crazy strides,” Yarbrough said. “The whole summer we were in the gym … all of us every night, playing open gym with each other. Matt developed a lot of confidence just playing with us all the time and not being scared of the moment.
“He really showed himself this year starting off with the Ole Miss game (a 101-97 overtime win in December). He plays hard, he plays aggressive, he takes his shots. He plays defense at a high level as well. Matt is a big part of what we’re doing.”
That was inconceivable a year ago.
But it’s true.