With Notre Dame up 63-62 with 42 seconds remaining against Xavier in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Eric Atkins had the ball in his hands with designs on increasing the Irish's tenuous lead.
The Mount St. Joseph grad took the inbounds pass and faced pressure from Musketeers defenders. Atkins eyed teammate Pat Connaughton, but lofted his pass into the stands for a devastating late turnover. On the next possession, Xavier's Tu Holloway connected on a fade-away jumper that gave the Musketeers a 64-63 edge. The Irish never got the lead back, falling 67-63 to XU.
As Atkins prepared for his junior season, the many individual and team successes he experienced during the 2011-12 season were never at the forefront of his mind. Rather, it was his role in the Irish's devastating tournament defeat.
"I played that moment a lot in my head," Atkins said. "That was a huge play -- a game-changing play. So I just think about that a lot whenever I don't feel like working out. I just think about that as another reason to get up and work out."
As a motivational tactic, Atkins' method for inspiration makes plenty of sense. But it also downplays just how successful a sophomore season he had. The 6-foot-1, 184-pound junior went from a part-time player as a freshman with modest statistical averages (5.8 points, 3.2 assists, 1.8 rebounds) to one of the Big East's steadiest point guards.
"I would say I surprised a couple teams this past year because they really didn't know what to expect from me," Atkins said. "My freshman year I was really just a person who brought the ball up and set up the offense. Last year I was more into attacking mode. I did surprise some teams."
Atkins began his sophomore season with a 27-point outburst in an 80-67 win over Mississippi Valley State. In 11 non-conference games, the former Baltimore Sun first-team All-Metro selection reached double figures in scoring eight times.
When Big East play began, Atkins' consistent play mostly continued. He scored 15 in an overtime win against Louisville; 18 in a victory over Marquette; and 17 in an overtime win at Villanova. Atkins finished his sophomore season with averages of 12.1 points, 4.1 assists and 3.2 rebounds. He shot 39.4 percent from the field, including 37.5 percent from 3-point range.
"I think I expected [to have a big year], but I'm not sure many other people expected it," he said. "I just knew what I could do within my game and I'm just very confident in my abilities. I'm proud to go show the world what I could do."
During the offseason, Atkins said his two biggest points of emphasis were making his jumper more consistent, and working on late-game situations where he would be forced to break his man down off the dribble and find a cutter or look for his own shot. "Just being aggressive all the time" will be the mantra of Atkins' junior season.
Notre Dame finished the 2011-12 season with a 22-12 record (13-5 Big East), which sounds impressive on paper, but didn't come close to satisfying Atkins. He's optimistic that the Irish will be better this year.
"The talent is very high, especially since we're bringing back our starting five," Atkins said. "And we're bringing in three very good freshmen that will play this year. I think this is one of our most talented teams I've been a part of here."
With the Irish set to join the ACC in 2014, there's "big motivation" for Notre Dame to end its Big East tenure on top of the conference standings. Atkins hopes to "jumpstart" ND's transition to the ACC – a conference he grew up watching in Columbia – by going out with a conference championship.
"Our goal is to win the Big East," Atkins said. "That's really the only goal I'm thinking about at the moment. Winning the Big East and getting through our non-league schedule in a nice fashion. We do play Kentucky here and Purdue also. So we have some tough teams before league play starts. We're just trying to come out on top."
The Sweet 16 is an occasional series profiling the best Division I college basketball players from the Baltimore area. Players were selected based on prior accomplishments and projections for the upcoming season.