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Gulf Coast sophomores relish rise from Panhandle cellar to state berth

By Dustin Kent
For Gulf Coast players Cam Holden, Jacolbey Owens, Maurice Gordon, and KK Godwin, their first season playing college basketball couldn’t have gone a lot worse.

It started with a hurricane that kept the Commodores on the road for the first month of the season, and it ended with a coaching change following a losing season that saw them finish 2-10 and in last place in the Panhandle Conference.

All four were faced with a choice: 1) move on to another school and find a fresh start, or 2) stick it out with new coach Phil Gaffney and try to turn things around.

The freshmen chose the second option, and now as sophomores they’re on their way to the postseason.

While only three of the four remain - Godwin is suspended indefinitely while dealing with legal troubles - the core group of returners has played a pivotal role in leading Gulf Coast to its best season in over a decade.

“It’s a big thing,” Owens said. “Being in last place last year, to come in second in the conference this year was big, including all the stuff we went through with the hurricane, the change in coaches, losing 10 games in the conference and winning two, it’s big.

“It’s been tough, but it’s been good. The four that came back really came together, including KK, even though he’s not here, and we just put everything together.”

The Commodores put together a 21-7 season, including an 8-4 mark in the Panhandle Conference, to advance to the 2020 FCSAA State Tournament next week in Niceville despite losing Godwin to injury and suspension for the majority of league play and losing Gaffney to a heart attack that has kept him off the sideline since Jan. 18.

It’s the first appearance at the state tournament for Gulf Coast since the 2008-2009 season. Holden said he hopes it’s the first of many more to come for the Commodores and that this year’s team can the one that pushes men’s basketball at Gulf Coast to a new level.

“We all committed to come back and we reached our goal, which was to set a foundation at Gulf Coast,” Holden said. “We wanted to turn it around. We didn’t want to run away from the competition in the Panhandle. We wanted to come back and compete and leave our mark.

“We kind of got bullied last year and ran through. This year, we were the bully and it was a great feeling. I’m proud of what we did, but we’re not finished.”

Holden, a versatile 6-foot-5 forward, leads the Commodores in scoring and rebounding at 20.6 points and 10.7 rebounds per game along with three assists per contest.

Owens, a 6-1 combo guard, is averaging 13.8 points, 3.3 assists, and 2.2 steals per game, while the 6-1 point guard Godwin was averaging 13.1 points and 4.1 assists at the time of his suspension.

The 6-6 Gordon is putting in 10.4 points and 5.6 rebounds per game and is the man who officially put the Commodores into the postseason with a half-court buzzer beater to knock off Tallahassee 108-107 in triple overtime in the regular season finale.

Since hitting the shot, Gordon said he has received too many messages from friends and former acquaintances to count.

“It’s a lot,” he said. “I still don’t believe it. It was so crazy. That game was big for us to clinch a spot at state. For me to take that shot and for that to be the shot that won the game, that’s crazy.”

Gordon finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds in the victory, while Holden had 24 points and Owens 21 points and eight assists.

Gulf Coast trailed by 18 points with just under eight minutes to play, though Owens said there was never much doubt within the team about the Commodores’ ability to come back.

″(Acting coach Scott Jackson) called timeout and told us we’re not giving up and we’re not losing this game,” he said. “We took it pound by pound, play by play. Jammy (Pierre-Louis) hit a couple of threes that got us back in the flow of it, and once we saw we could come back and win, we just kept fighting. We were gonna fight until the end of the game.”

Now, the Commodores get to continue to fight into the postseason. Three more wins and they’ll get to move on to the national tournament in Hutchinson, Kan. Two more wins and Gulf Coast could be in line for an at-large bid to nationals.

Regardless of what happens in Niceville, Owens said the opportunity to be a part of the group that brought Gulf Coast men’s basketball back to national relevance is special to him and his fellow sophomores.

“Man, it means everything,” he said. “Coming in last place and now being the first team in a long time to come in and make the tournament, it’s just big. We put everything we had into it and it worked out.”

 

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