For Noah Fernandes, Thursday began like any other game day for the Wichita State men’s basketball team.
The 5-foot-11 point guard had played sparingly in his freshman season for the Shockers — just 45 combined minutes in the last 14 games, including six games where he never got off the bench. His season averages to date were 0.8 points, 0.8 rebounds and 1.0 assists.
But Fernandes never wavered in his preparation or his confidence. Yet, even he admitted he was “shocked” when he discovered he would be WSU’s starting point guard on Thursday night at Central Florida less than an hour before the game, which the Shockers desperately needed to win to halt a three-game slide.
“I just kept thinking this is when preparation meets opportunity,” Fernandes said.
Fernandes responded with a brilliant performance considering the circumstances, scoring a career-high seven points and adding two assists in a career-high 24 minutes to help lead WSU to a 75-58 throttling of UCF at Addition Financial Arena.
Here’s the inside story on how the undersized guard from Mattapoisett, Massachusetts remained prepared for his chance after two months of hardly playing and why he was able to capitalize when his opportunity came on Thursday.
‘I knew my time would eventually come’
Life on the bench has been an adjustment for Fernandes, who like his teammates was a standout player growing up and through high school. He was the starting point guard at prestigious Woodstock Academy and led the team to the top seed at the National Prep Championship last season.
Fernandes was playing well in the summer, according to WSU coach Gregg Marshall, until a badly sprained foot sidelined him for nine weeks. That kept Fernandes from a crucial development period for a freshman and forced him to play catch-up during the season.
“And that’s hard,” Marshall said. “By that time, you’ve got your rotations down and we’re winning games.”
When conference play rolled around and Marshall cut down his rotation, Fernandes was left out. Before playing 11 minutes at the end of a 33-point blowout loss at Houston on Sunday, Fernandes hadn’t played more than five minutes since the new year.
It was tough, but Fernandes remained strong.
“In life, I’m a big believer in the law of attraction,” Fernandes said. “If you’re attracting all of that negative energy about ‘I’m not playing’ and this and that and attracting all of those negative emotions, then that’s what’s going to keep coming. So I stayed positive and encouraged my guys.
“To me, I wasn’t feeling any type of way I wasn’t playing because those are my guys out there hooping and winning games for us. I was happy. I just stayed positive and kept it pushing, I knew my time would come eventually.”
Fernandes was adamant that Thursday’s breakthrough performance wouldn’t have been possible without the support from the WSU coaching staff and his teammates. While Thursday was finally the moment he had been waiting for personally, Fernandes said “I’m more happy that we came together as a team and got that win.”
Against UCF, Fernandes played the role of floor general well, making sure WSU’s offense was in constant motion. And when the opportunity presented itself, Fernandes did not hesitate. He drilled a three in the first half, then added a wrong-footed floater in the lane and a pull-up jumper in transition in the second half to help WSU put the game away.
It was without a doubt the best game Fernandes had played in a Shocker uniform. He hopes that Thursday is the start of something moving forward, but Fernandes says that it won’t change his mindset.
“It doesn’t matter to me how many minutes I play the next game,” Fernandes said. “I just know that every time I’m out there on the court I’m going to give my 100% every single time. That’s all coach Marshall asks me to do and that’s what I’m going to do.”
‘He’s mature beyond his years’
When WSU’s season hit rock bottom after a 33-point loss at Houston, Marshall scheduled an impromptu Monday practice that turned into a two-hour therapy session for the Shockers. In a meeting where players came forward to vent their frustrations about playing time and their role on the team, Fernandes instead stood in front of his teammates and delivered a message of remaining positive through the darkness.
He had every reason to be bitter about his lack of time on the court. He could have sulked in practice and in the locker room. But Fernandes never did.
“He never pouted once,” WSU sophomore Erik Stevenson said. “That shows he’s mature beyond his years. He’s got some great leadership qualities in him and there’s no doubt down the road he’s going to be a great leader. He comes to practice with his hard hat on and goes to work. A lot of effort and energy every day. I kept telling him, ‘Your time is coming. It might not seem like it, but you’re going to get your moment and you’re going to shine.’”
It was obvious by the genuine reactions of joy from the WSU coaches and players how well-liked Fernandes is among the team.
“I’m so happy for him,” WSU sophomore Dexter Dennis said. “He brings it every day in practice on scout team and he’s always attack, attack, attack. I told him after, ‘Just run with it.’ He’s got the opportunity now and just run with it. I knew he was going to do well because I’ve been seeing him do well for four, five months now. It’s not surprising, but I’m still happy for him.”
Marshall had silently watched Fernandes do and say the right thing the entire season. After Monday’s meeting, the coach knew he had to shake things up and decided to give Fernandes a chance to practice with the first team on Wednesday. Fernandes was “dynamite” and Marshall knew he had to trust his gut and promote him to the starting lineup.
“When you lose a couple in a row, you start searching,” Marshall said. “I’ve been telling him that his time is coming and I really believe he’s going to be a really fine player. Given the opportunity like he had tonight, he delivered and it’s just a beautiful thing to watch and I’m so happy for him.”
‘He finally looked like himself’
Mike Fernandes’ phone would not stop vibrating 10 minutes before Thursday’s WSU game tipped off in Orlando.
“Noah is starting! Why didn’t you tell us?”
The father was stunned. At first, he didn’t believe it. But then he checked Twitter to confirm that his son, Noah, was indeed making his first collegiate start and a rush of adrenaline raced through him.
“He’s been dreaming about this and playing some college basketball,” Mike Fernandes told The Eagle in a phone interview from the family’s home in Massachusetts. “I was so happy for him because he’s worked so hard for this. There’s a little pressure with starting, but it was like ‘Hey, let’s see what you can do with it.’”
The family couldn’t have imagined a better debut. They roared when Noah received a kick-out pass early in the first half and drained a three-pointer, his first since Nov. 19, putting WSU on top 22-13.
The screams grew even louder when their son came up clutch against a UCF rally in the second half. It was Noah who delivered the run-stopping basket, an off-balanced floater, to swing momentum back WSU’s way. Not longer after, Noah pushed the ball in transition, probed his way inside the arc and confidently pulled up for a 12-foot jumper that he buried.
“He finally looked like himself,” said Shikara Fernandes, Noah’s mother. “That’s the thing everyone said to us this season is that he doesn’t look like himself and he doesn’t look comfortable. I think tonight he finally got back to playing like himself again.”
The parents had a lot to be proud of before Thursday’s game with the way that their son had carried himself through adversity. But watching Noah play so well and finally play a crucial role in a crucial WSU victory was a special experience for them.
“Noah is such a genuine kid and he’s always wanted what is best for the team first,” Mike Fernandes said. “I know he wanted to be out there playing, but he kept working hard in practice and kept getting better. We kept telling him that eventually he’s going to get a chance and be ready for that opportunity. He did pretty good (Thursday), so hopefully he’ll keep getting better and the more he plays the more confidence he’ll gain.”
After the way he played Thursday, it sounds like Noah Fernandes has gained that trust from Marshall moving forward.
“The guy has no fear,” Marshall said. “He plays much bigger than his stature and tonight he proved that he can, given the opportunity, he can deliver. And I’m looking forward to seeing that more.”