Before the season, the Seattle Pacific men’s basketball team had a retreat, and 6-foot-5 junior guard Gavin Long, the team’s leading returning scorer, had a message for his teammates.
“I told all of them, ‘I am excited for my senior year, but I know this year, with our senior squad, and our experience, that we are going to be able to do something special,’ ” Long said.
The Falcons are indeed doing something special, even if took longer than they might have expected.
With 12 straight victories, the Falcons are one of the hottest NCAA Division II teams in the country and are coming off winning the Great Northwest Athletic Conference tournament.
SPU (21-6) begins play in an even bigger tournament as the No. 2 seed in the eight-team West Regional of the NCAA Division II tournament. The winner of the West Regional will move on to the Elite Eight in Evansville, Ind.
The Falcons seem to have a great chance to get there, just six weeks after it might have seemed impossible.
They lost three straight games toward the end of January, with a 17-point loss at Saint Martin’s followed by a 29-point loss at Montana State Billings to fall to 9-6. They haven’t lost since.
“We had a couple of really hard practices after that loss (to Montana State Billings), and we changed our mindset,” Long said. “We became more focused, played more together. We finally started to get it all to click.”
Long, who was the Big-9 League player of the year as a senior at Wenatchee High School, leads the Falcons in scoring at 14.0 points per game. He has a remarkable .555 shooting percentage for a guard and is shooting 46 percent from three-point range.
He would probably score much more on another team. But SPU has many players who can score, and their balance and unselfishness has been key to its great run. Seven active players are averaging between 7.3 and 14.0 points and six players have led the team in scoring in at least one game.
“You can’t key in on any one guy,” said Long, who scored a season-high 27 points in the GNAC tournament semifinal win over Northwest Nazarene. “Winning is all that matters for us right now. Winning is fun and winning cures everything.”
Seattle Pacific coach Grant Leep was a Falcon assistant coach when he started recruiting Long, who played for the Seattle-based Friends of Hoop AAU team. It was quite a commitment for Long (and his parents), who on Tuesdays and Thursdays would make the 150-mile drive to Seattle for practice, then head back, doing his homework in the car.
Leep loved what he saw in Long.
“The first thing that always drew us to him was his competitiveness,” Leep said. “He is such a competitor on both ends of the floor. He has no problem guarding the best guy on the other team. And on offense, he is so efficient. But the competitiveness that he plays with is so hard to find and that’s what separates him.”
Long had initially hoped to play at a Division I school, but decided to commit to SPU before his senior year. He said it was a great decision. He has excelled in basketball, becoming the 37th player in school history to reach 1,000 career points, and also in the classroom, carrying a 3.54 GPA in physiology and planning to become a dentist.
“This is the perfect situation for me,” Long said of being at SPU. “I live only two hours away and my family can come see all my games. I also like the private, small-college, Christian atmosphere here. I am developing as a student and as a basketball player.”
When he can, Long likes to go home and see his three younger siblings, but he doesn’t have much free time. He is taking 17 credits, including five-credit classes in genetics, bio-chemistry and art, while also getting a credit for tutoring and playing basketball.
“Right now, it’s the busiest time in basketball, and it’s probably one of the hardest quarters I will take in college, so it’s a lot, but it’s fun,” he said.
Confidence is high for Long and his teammates, who open the West Regional against No. 7 seed Chaminade (23-7). If the Falcons win, they would play the winner of the Saint Martin’s-Concordia (Calif.) matchup, two teams SPU has defeated this year.
The top seed is host Point Loma, coached by former SPU coach Ryan Looney, whom Leep succeeded three seasons ago. Long said the Falcons are capable of winning not only the regional but the entire tournament.
“We’ve got the talent to play against anyone, and I am ready to go,” Long said. “If we keep playing like we have been, we are going to be a tough team to knock out.”