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Gulf Coast opens Panhandle play with newfound confidence

By Dustin Kent
The last time Gulf Coast coach Phil Gaffney took a team to Raider Arena to take on Northwest Florida State, it was with Georgia Highlands in the opener of the 2015-16 season.

Gaffney’s Chargers lost the game 98-72, and didn’t lose another for 56 straight outings. Four years later, Gaffney takes his first Gulf Coast team to Niceville for the Panhandle Conference opener on Saturday and will be looking to start another dominant run at his new school, though he’s well aware of difficult it will be to do in what has traditionally been the best JUCO basketball conference in America.

“I’m fortunate to have gone against all these teams in the past, so it’s not intimidating from that standpoint,” he said. “But it is the Panhandle, so you know it’s gonna be good competition and good basketball and there are no easy nights out.

“There are other conferences where there are always certain games you knew you were gonna win no matter what. There are no easy games here. All 12 games you have to be on your job or you could lose. There’s really no bottom of this the conference. The bottom of this conference is as good as the top of the conference at a lot of other places.”

Of the five Panhandle teams, all five are ranked in the top 10 in the state poll, though only Tallahassee (16-2) is ranked nationally at No. 12.

Chipola (12-4) comes in ranked No. 6, followed by Gulf Coast (12-3) at No. 7 and Northwest Florida State (12-4) at No. 8.

Only Pensacola State (11-6), ranked No. 10 in the state, has not be in the national poll at some point this season. However, Gaffney said he thinks the league is probably as up for grabs as it has been in recent memory.

“It’s a good conference, but I don’t think there’s a dominant team,” he said. “I think 1-through-5 is pretty even. In the past you’ve seen Northwest go undefeated or lose one or two. Maybe you can lose three or four this year and win the championship. Maybe you can have four or five losses and get second and go to state. I think it’s a definite possibility.”

Gulf Coast has been ranked as high as No. 6 nationally and No. 1 in the state this season, though the Commodores tumbled out of the NJCAA poll thanks to three losses in five games heading into the holiday break.

The Commodores bounced back in a big way earlier this week with their first two games back home at the Visit Panama City Beach Men’s Basketball Classic, torching East Georgia State and Monroe College by margins of 65 and 44 points and averaging 117.5 points in those wins.

For a team that has had some incredibly impressive wins along with some disappointing losses, Saturday will start to reveal just how for real the Commodores are.

“We’re gonna find out,” Gaffney said. “We know Northwest is gonna be hyped up for the first conference game. I know people will be hyped up for the women’s game before us, so I think it will be a pretty crazy atmosphere.

“We played great in these last two games, but it doesn’t mean anything if we don’t do it in the conference.”

Gulf Coast sophomore forward Cam Holden said he definitely believes the Commodores are true contenders for the Panhandle crown, and it appears that other league coaches believe the same.

“A lot of coaches stayed and watched us play (on Monday and Tuesday),” he said. “Last year, they didn’t watch us play and we noticed that. This year we noticed the Chipola and Northwest coaches were watching us play, so they know we’re a threat. That made us really know we’re doing something right and brought us some energy.”

Holden, who leads the team with 18.3 points and 10.7 rebounds per game, is one of four returning players for Gulf Coast along with guards KK Godwin (14.1 points, 4.5 assists per game) and Jacolbey Owens (11.7 points, 3.1 assists), and forward Maurice Gordon (10.7 points, 6.1 rebounds).

The quartet returned after a 14-15 season with hopes of turning things around, and Holden said the players’ mentality heading into Panhandle play this season is night and day from a year ago.

“It’s a lot more confidence,” he said. “Watching a powerhouse like Northwest last year, we were looking at it like, ‘man, we’re nowhere near those guys.’ This year we believe we’re gonna make a run, and if we don’t, we’ll set the tone to make a run next year for this program.

“The women have already got a powerhouse and have for a long time. This can be the foundation for a powerhouse for the men’s program. We want to be the ones to start it.”

 

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