Georgia Highlands Coach Phil Gaffney didn’t replay the semifinal game of last March’s National Junior College Athletic Association tournament at Hutchinson, Kans. over and over in the off-season â€“ in his mind or on videotape. Fact is, he watched the game on video once and took some copious notes on what his team could have done better. He just wanted to make sure that his team learned from the loss.
“We played well and were up 15 points with 7:30 left, but then we hit a wall,” said Gaffney. “We had played four games in four days, had our ball handlers fouled out and had our backup point guard out with an injured ankle. We ran out of bodies and just faded with fatigue.”
On the biggest JUCO stage at the NJCAA Final Four, Gaffney cringed inside at the final score: Northwest Florida St. 105, Georgia Highlands 103 (OT).
While a warm and fuzzy Northwest Florida St. went on to win the championship, a deflated Highlands lost to Hill, Texas (94-82) in the consolation game and claimed fourth place. Highlands was the only team in the 24-team field to play five games in five days, and the wear and tear on his team â€“ most notably tired legs â€“ was not lost on Gaffney.
“We were spent the last 10 minutes against Northwest Florida St. and in the game against Hill. That is the reality of getting a bad seed,” said Gaffney. “We just have to try to do better this year, and get a better seed.”
At his team’s first practice last October, Gaffney emphasized to his players the ultimate goal â€“ getting back to Hutchinson. He pushed that mantra, graduation, and doing well in and out of school to all of his players.
“Our team motto is, ‘Better Person, Better Student, Better Athlete,'” said Gaffney.
On the court, a virtually new team has amassed a 25-1 record and a No. 2 ranking in the NJCAA poll this year with the regular season almost over. Not bad considering only three players were on last year’s roster, and only two (Doniel Dean and Paris Ballinger) were in the regular 10-player rotation.
Dean, a 6-1 sophomore, has proven to be a solid all-around player and a deluxe defender, while Kyvon Davenport, a 6-8 freshman, fares well no matter where he is on the floor.
Dean, who averages 14 points, is one of five players who scores between 10.7 and 14.2 points per game. Ballinger grabs a team-high 8.8 rebounds a game. Along with those two, some talented freshmen and some ready-to-go transfers have made the Chargers a big winner.
“Coach Gaffney and his staff does an excellent job recruiting players who fit their style of play,” said Gordon St. coach Bruce Capers. “They like to press to force their up tempo style. They play with high energy and a lot of emphasis on the defensive end.”
“The thing I like most about his team is that they make you pay for turnovers and they make you pay for taking bad shots,” Capers added. “He has very efficient teams, players know their role and regardless of the situation they are in they stay true to what they are trying to do.”
No matter what happens, Gaffney longs to get back to plains of Kansas.
“We have certainly exceeded expectations so far,” Gaffney said. “But if we fall short of our goal of getting to Hutch, it will be a huge disappointment.”
Author Tony Jimenez has written about junior college basketball for many years. His work has appeared in the Sporting News, Basketball Times and many other publications.