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Commodores lament lost opportunity at Hutch

By Dustin Kent
When the announcement came down from the NJCAA on Monday about the cancellation of the national tournament in Hutchinson, Kan. - already postponed to April 20 from its original scheduled start date of March 16 - the news didn’t come as much of a surprise to Gulf Coast men’s basketball players.

That didn’t make it sting any less, particularly for the Commodores’ sophomores.

“We kind of thought positive like we were gonna play,” Gulf Coast sophomore forward Cam Holden said after the postponement. “But deep down inside, we knew. But them officially ending the season, it hurts, especially when you work so hard to get where you want to be and the ultimate goal of the season is taken away from you. It hurt.”

The trip to Hutchinson would’ve been the first time that Gulf Coast’s men’s program played in the national tournament since 1972, punctuating an improbable run that featured a turnaround from last-place in the Panhandle Conference in 2019 to state champions in 2020.

Even the trip to Niceville for the state tourney marked the first postseason appearance for the Commodore men since 2009.

For a program that hasn’t done much winning in its history, losing a chance to make a run at a national title is especially devastating.

“That did make it tougher,” sophomore guard Jacolbey Owens said. “This is not something like the women’s basketball program. We don’t get to go to the national tournament every year, so us not having been there in a long time and getting to go, it was really special.

“It felt like we were gonna make a big run there. We had been playing so good together, playing our best basketball at the right time. It’s hard to think about the fact that I don’t get to put on that uniform again.”

Owens wasn’t the only Commodore who believed the team was poised to make a run at Hutchinson after closing the regular season and state tournament with four straight victories over nationally-ranked teams, including a win over No. 1 Florida Southwestern State.

“It’s like we knew we would make a run at nationals because the way we played for the last month,” Gulf Coast freshman guard Jammy Pierre-Louis said. “We played hard teams, played a hard schedule. Teams hadn’t seen a team like us that presses the whole game. We knew we would make a run and our recruitment would go through the roof. It sucks we can’t participate in that now.”

Beyond the opportunity to play for a national title, Hutchinson also provides a big stage for JUCO players to perform in front of Division-I coaches and raise their recruiting profile.

Maurice Gordon, a 6-foot-6 forward who hasn’t yet committed, said not getting the chance to play at Hutchinson is a lost opportunity for himself and the Commodores’ other unsigned sophomores.

“It’s another big thing going on right now with offers and schools and coaches trying to reach out now,” he said. “It will be kind of hard to make a decision. I think I could’ve gotten more (offers) going to Hutch, but I think I’ll be fine with what I have now. It’s just about getting more film out to help me get some more schools and coaches on me.”

For Owens, who averaged 19.3 points per game over his last eight, including a 23-point performance in the state championship victory over Tallahassee, the cancellation couldn’t have come at a much worse time for his recruitment.

“After the state tournament, so many coaches were texting me and telling me they’re ready to see me play and how talented I was, so it was really a big deal for me, especially because I was starting to get recruited heavy,” he said. “It kind of hurts. Being that successful in the state tournament and playing my best basketball at the right time, now I don’t get a chance to play.

“But life continues. My thing is it has to move forward like it does for everybody. Sometimes it just takes longer to get where you want to be. I just have to believe in God and believe what He has in store for me and pray that I get to where I want to be.”

The Commodore sophomores’ resolve has been tested a good bit over the past 18 months, going all the way back to Hurricane Michael in October of 2018.

After having the beginning of their first season of college basketball interrupted by Mother Nature, the quartet of Owens, Holden, Gordon, and KK Godwin then went on to finish 2-10 in the Panhandle Conference.

That was followed by a coaching change, with Phil Gaffney replacing long-time coach Jay Powell. Gulf Coast showed signs of life early in the 2019-20 season with an 8-0 start featuring a victory over No. 4 Indian Hills.

One game into Panhandle Conference play, the Commodores lost their starting point guard Godwin to a broken hand and later on to a suspension. Four games into conference play, Gaffney suffered a heart attack and was sidelined for the remainder of the season.

Gulf Coast managed to make it to the postseason anyway, beating Tallahassee in triple overtime on a half-court buzzer-beater by Gordon to clinch a berth to state, and then running off three wins in a row over No. 1 Florida Southwestern State, No. 19 Central Florida, and No. 12 Tallahassee to punch its ticket to Hutchinson.

It was a long road to ultimately stop at a dead end.

“Oh man, the only way I can describe it is like a rollercoaster, just up and down, up and down,” Holden said of his two-year odyssey at Gulf Coast. “We had the hurricane and it was down, coach Gaffney coming in and it was back up, then coach Gaffney having a heart attack and we were back down, we won state and were back up, and now this. It’s a crazy feeling. I’m just sitting in my room right now like we’re supposed to be in Hutch, but now we’re back home worried about what’s gonna be the next move.

“But I feel like guys believe in what we did here and we made our mark and made a good run. I hope from here they can keep going up.”

The Commodore sophomores were united in their belief that their legacy as a class remains secured, even though they didn’t get the finish they were hoping for.

“I view it as putting the program back on the map,” Owens said. “We did so much this season and accomplished so much and paved the way for upcoming players. We did so many amazing things this season with so many obstacles in the way.

“I just want to thank Commodore Nation for supporting us this season no matter what happened. It humbles you and makes you realize that there’s more to it than basketball, so my thing is I just want to tell all the people coming to Gulf Coast to have have fun and cherish it because it’s really fun to play here. Playing in the state tournament was really fun. Next year, I hope they get to the national tournament and actually get to play.”


 

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