For a season filled with ups, downs and all-arounds, it surely ended on a high note.
The Grays Harbor College men’s basketball had four players score in double-digits and made the plays down the stretch to hold on for a 67-63 upset victory over Lower Columbia College on Wednesday in Aberdeen.
Playing in just its third home game in front of a full crowd after the school relaxed its COVID policies to allow the public to attend, the Chokers (11-17 overall, 7-8 NWAC West) jumped out to a 17-6 lead on a Dallin Spencer three with 9:35 to go in the first half and held a 35-26 lead at halftime.
Grays Harbor extended its lead to 40-26 in the first minute of the second half on a David Featherston Jr. layup followed by a Logan Walker 3-pointer.
But the Red Devils (19-7, 11-4) — winners of the NWAC West Region and eighth-ranked team according to the latest NWAC Coaches’ Poll — embarked on a near five-minute run to cut the GHC lead to 42-40 on a Keylin Vance 3-pointer with 13:46 left in the game.
GHC responded with a run of its own, scoring seven straight points capped by a Tristan Schoepf three to stake the Chokers to a 49-40 lead.
Lower Columbia would keep it close, however, cutting the deficit to 59-54 until an emphatic dunk from Featherston put GHC back up by seven with 3:08 remaining in the game.
A layup by LCC guard Ky-mani Pollard cut the Chokers’ lead to 63-60 with a minute to go, but another Featherston slam would put GHC up by five and had the crowd leaping to its feet with 33 seconds to go.
On the ensuing possession, Lower Columbia’s Keylin Vance was fouled shooting a three and subsequently converted three shots from the charity stripe to pull LCC within a bucket at 65-63 with 26 seconds left in the game.
The Red Devils had a chance to steal a win with less than 10 seconds on the clock, but Pollard’s 3-point attempt was off the mark.
Schoepf then buried two clutch free throws with four seconds left to secure the 67-63 victory.
GHC was able to run the remaining time off the clock, setting off a raucous Chokers’ celebration at mid-court.
Led by Featherston’s 17 points, four GHC players finished in double figures, with Schoepf (14 pts.), Walker (12 pts.) and Spencer (12 pts.) contributing to a balanced Chokers offense that shot an efficient 26-of-44 from the field (59.1%), helping to overcome 17 turnovers.
After the game, GHC head coach Matt Vargas talked about how a charged-up crowd made an impact not just in Wednesday’s victory, but in the Chokers’ previous home victory over then No. 6 Tacoma.
“It’s hard to explain, but everybody is just frustrated. Everyone was pissed off with these masks. Everybody around us was having fans (attend games). People were so desperate that we got a bunch of new fans from on campus,” he said of the enthusiastic fan response. “So when it opened up I think everybody was just like, ‘Let’s get in there.’ And yes it was only the last three games of the year, but there is no truer comparison to measure stuff off of than we beat No. 1 (in NWAC West Region) Tacoma here and tonight we beat first-place Lower Columbia here. Nobody can tell me that having the community and campus being in the building isn’t a huge advantage. We saw that and it’s exciting.”
While several local high schools temporarily barred fans from attending games during the height of the omicron-variant outbreak earlier in the season, Grays Harbor College took the unusual measure of being the only educational institution on the Twin Harbors to not allow fans to basketball games for nearly an entire season.
GHC was also the only school on the Twin Harbors to require controversial proof of COVID vaccination verification for fans to spectate Chokers games.
Vargas said his players and the student body in general deserve better.
“They deserve a college experience and for two years they haven’t had it. They came to college thinking one thing about college and they got three games (in front of a full crowd of fans),” he said, noting how proud he was of the way his players have conducted themselves both on and off the court, with all of his sophomores earning a 3.0 GPA or higher. “Part of that makes me sad but part of it is like, ‘Hell yeah. Way to go guys. Way to finish strong and show everyone what you are made of.’”
With all NWAC schools dealing with COVID for the past two seasons, Vargas explains that there are some differences between those schools and what’s happening at Grays Harbor College.
“So how did the other teams make it through and stay successful?” he asked, rhetorically. “Ultimately, you have to look at facilities, housing, the support system. Everybody at those institutions is on the same page and going in the same direction. And there are some things that are missing here and it directly correlates into mental health for our student-athletes and all students. It directly correlates into stress and it directly correlates with energy. … What I am saying is the hand that these kids are dealt does indeed directly correlate with the success they have in the classroom and what they do on the court and that’s how those other teams are able to survive.”
Lower Columbia 26 37 — 63
Grays Harbor 35 32 — 67
Lower Columbia (63) — Gruhler 16, Pollard 15, Vance 13, Royal III 6, Campbell 6, Hardy 5, Schwenke 2
Grays Harbor (67) — Featherston 17, Schoepf 14, Walker 12, Spencer 12, Loveless 7, Bell 3, Gutierrez 2