‘I do not like losing Uno games’: Noah Fernandes’ competitive leadership brings another dimension to UMass basketball
The sophomore guard transferred from Wichita State
January 11, 2021
With No. 8 seed Tabor Academy leading by two with about 30 seconds left in the first round of the 2018 New England Prep School Class A tournament, No. 1 seeded Loomis Chaffee heads to the free throw line for two.
On the verge of a tie game, the referee asks Tabor Seawolves head coach Chris Millette if he wants to use his final timeout if the Loomis Chaffee guard sinks both shots. Millette declines.
Everyone in the Windsor, Conn. gym already knew where the ball was heading before the final possession even began: into the hands of Seawolves star point guard and current UMass sophomore Noah Fernandes. After all, just five days earlier, Fernandes had gone coast-to-coast sinking a layup to beat Double A Worcester Academy at the buzzer.
The Pelicans guard hits both his free throws to tie the game at 64 and without hesitation or a timeout, Tabor inbounds to Fernandes who slowly brings the ball up court and enters an isolation set. As the clock ticks down past 10 seconds, all 5-feet-11 of Fernandes begins to slash to the hoop. In Millette’s offense, “good teams get to the rim at the end of games.”
But with everyone in the building expecting it, four towering Loomis defenders converge in the paint. With the clock ticking to seven seconds, his lane to the basket cut off and a defender on his hip, Fernandes stops on a dime at the top of the key. He takes one large step back beyond the three-point arc and with all the confidence in the world, lets his shot fly.
Fernandes’ shot hits the back of the rim and sinks properly into the basket as the few remaining seconds tick off the clock. The Seawolves upset the Pelicans 67-64 and advance to the next round of the NEPSAC tourney.
Though hitting a game-winner as an underdog seems like an unforgettable moment in a player’s career, the shot against Loomis Chaffee represents just another day in the office for Fernandes.
“I just trust my work. It’s not any different type or shot or anything for me, it’s all the same reps,” Fernandes said. “It’s obviously a bigger shot, a bigger moment. But at the end of the day, you have to trust your work and trust what you do every day.”
“He’s just different.”
That was one of the first thoughts that went through Millette’s mind when he recruited Fernandes to Tabor after the Mattapoisett, Mass. native’s freshman year at local public school Old Rochester Regional. In his first and only season at ORR, Fernandes propelled the Bulldogs to their only Division III championship in school history, averaging 15.8 points per game.
As an undersized guard, Fernandes’ ability to instinctually finish around the rim against taller defenders impressed the Tabor coaching staff.
“What stuck out about him was his body control and his quickness,” Millette said. “When people would see him play, they would just say he’s different. He just moves differently; he just does things differently. He would just get down in a defensive stance and you would go ‘woah that kid knows how to play.’”
But it was not only Fernandes’ body control or defense that made Chris Millette recruit him.
“When you’re recruiting, you’re looking for kids that know how to win and are winners and those really are intangible qualities,” Millette said. “He’s just a winner.”
With the addition of Fernandes, the Tabor coaching staff no longer felt the need to discuss how to win games with the team. Rather, Fernandes set the level of competition for the rest of the team to follow.
“It’s really not about winning; we’ve all been on teams where you’re supposed to win by 20 but you win by [one] in overtime,” said Millette. “That does not feel good, everyone feels crappy about that.”
“It’s about competing at the highest level that you can. I think that’s what [Noah] did and what he always did, always competed at a high level. When you do compete, you end up winning more times than not.”
Adding the ultra-competitive, 15-year-old Fernandes transformed Tabor practices into a battleground. With an experienced supporting cast and a fiery new point guard, intensity hit new levels for the Seawolves.
Millette recalls one instance where the team forced him to extend practice time after a scrimmage ended in a tie. When the opposing squads tied again in overtime, they egged Millette to let them continue. Tabor’s practice that day eventually concluded in a triple overtime draw.
“I literally had to end [practice] because the roof was about to pop in the place because the intensity was so high,” Millette said. “They were so mad at me for not letting them finish but I honestly knew there would’ve been a fight. If you have that, now you can talk about tweaking the X’s and O’s and intense strategy.”
For Fernandes, joining a team full of 19-year-old seniors only added to the chip he carried on his shoulder. Tabbed the most talented player on the Tabor roster even as a freshman by Millette’s standards, Fernandes showcased his competitive side to the mature roster almost immediately.
“We had a senior who was really fiery, really intense and kind of everyone walked on eggshells around him,” said Millette. “In preseason, they got into this normal pickup game argument and this senior did what he usually does and spoke up.
“And I’ll never forget Noah just said, ‘I’m not scared of you like everybody else.’ So that’s how he led, with his intensity and his fearlessness.”
Taking this spirit into games, Fernandes clamped onto opposing teams. In some instances, Fernandes would press other point guards so hard they would be forced into running faux zigzag drills when bringing the ball up the court before losing possession to Fernandes’ quick hands.
Now, three years removed from his senior season at Tabor with intermediate stops at Woodstock Academy and Wichita State, Fernandes takes this exact competitiveness to the UMass facility where his spirit has earned itself a moniker.
“[Noah] brings a lot of energy,” said senior captain Carl Pierre. “He brings that dog mentality and he’s a very unselfish player.”
“I know the things he’s capable of,” said Tre Mitchell. “He came into this gym and that first day he surprised me, just to see how much his game has grown from being at Woodstock together. He has that dog mentality, and he lives for big moments. I just can’t wait to play with him.”
“What does that mean, a dog — that means relentless, tough, gritty, fearless. Definitely a good way to describe [Noah],” added Millette.
The sort of ‘dog’ mentality that Fernandes embodies is a form of competitiveness he derives from one of his favorite players, Portland Trail Blazer star Damian Lillard. Like Fernandes, Lillard is known to hit step-back game winners, notably known for his playoff series-ending shot over perennial All-Star Paul George.
“There is no one else I want to play like,” said Fernandes. “[Lillard] brings that dog mentality every day, every game. That’s what I try to do, bring it to every practice, bring it to every game. Just bring that same energy wherever. Mold after Dame, hopefully be better than Dame.”
“I just play hard as I can, it doesn’t matter who’s on the other end, who I’m guarding, who my matchup is. If you tell me I got to go out there and guard a five, I’ll put my 200 percent effort in and try to guard that five man. Basically, it just drives from my competitiveness.
“I’m just super, super competitive, I do not like losing Uno games. That’s just where it comes from.”
As was the case at Tabor, Fernandes shows little fear when practicing with the Minutemen, showing aggressiveness even against his biggest teammates. In games, he is often seen flying across the floor for loose balls or pressing defenders into turnovers. Fernandes currently leads the Minutemen with 11 steals, a 35-to-9 assist to turnover ratio and is second only to Mitchell, averaging 4.7 rebounds per game.
“Whether he’s on defense or offense he’s constantly in attack mode, he’s relentless,” said UMass head coach Matt McCall. “We’re all about taking care of our bodies, but he’ll fly in there off two feet and take on Mark [Gasperini] or Tre in the post. He is terrific and he’s going to play a lot of minutes. I’m glad I get to coach him for the next three years.”
Though Fernandes’ competitiveness is what drives him and his teammates, attending Tabor under Millette refined raw, competitive passion into a spirited sense of leadership. On one occasion, Fernandes’ overwhelming passion to win had him booted from an intense Seawolves scrimmage for trying to ‘motivate his teammates.’
“He was super frustrated in practice because we were playing live and his team kept losing so, he kept yelling at this freshman. He told me that he was just trying to motivate him,” Millette said. “So, I said you got to stop that, and then it happened again, and I threw him out of practice.”
Millette, who currently serves as a leadership consultant in the healthcare and construction industries, saw this as an opportunity to teach his star point guard.
“I talked to him after and he just said, ‘I’m so intense I just want to win.’ That’s great, but you’re yelling at that kid,” Millette said. “I think that was a lesson, I think that was a moment for him where it was like being intense doesn’t mean you’re being a leader. Yelling at you doesn’t make me a leader, the goal is to help pick you up. And sometimes I got to yell at you for that, but sometimes I got to put my arm around you and say, ‘it’s going to be okay.’”
“We talk about this all the time. I could yell at player A and they will play better but I could yell at player B and they’re going to play worse. So, my job is not to yell at everybody, my job is to get everybody to play at a high level. It’s the progression of leadership I work with now. No. 1 is self-awareness; step two is awareness of others. Step three is learning to influence and how you influence others. Everybody is different.”
Fernandes and Millette’s conversation that day has resonated with the point guard throughout his career. The duo still keeps in touch, Millette regularly sending books or words of encouragement to Fernandes.
“It was perfect for me, I think in that moment I learned a lot in every aspect,” said Fernandes. “From that point I think it was a lot of growing for me, a lot of growing as a person.
“[Coach Millette] gave me the bigger picture of things. When I was a teenager, I didn’t look at things that way. When I look back on it now, those leadership skills that he gave me and all the books he gives me nowadays and stuff like that about leadership.
“Leadership to me isn’t something you just throw on somebody’s shoulders. If you really want to do it, you really got to learn about it, read about it, see it, try different things, be in different situations. It’s not the same for everybody, everybody’s different so you have to have different leadership styles for every person. I think that’s tough, but when you have a coach trying to do it and a staff trying to do it, it’s good. When you have players try to do it also, I think it helps a lot more.”
With a strong supporting cast at UMass including Mitchell and Pierre, it is no guarantee that Fernandes will get an opportunity for more isolation game winners. But with a relentless desire to win more championships, individual accomplishments mean little.
“I just don’t want to lose, that’s a perfect way to put it,” Fernandes said. “Whatever I have to do to win, I do it. That’s just me, that’s how I’ve been my whole life. Whether it be score, rebound, whatever you need me to do, I’m just not trying to lose. I’m going to just dog it out, dog it out, whatever we got to do.”
Dan McGee can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @TheDanMcGee.