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Paul Danzer On College Hoops: Cavs play hoops, console one another as university's closure looms

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Concordia guard Tamika Etherly (right) challenges a Saint Martin's shot during a game last week at the Northeast Portland university, which has announced it will close at the end of the 2019-20 school year.In the coming weeks, some college basketball teams will be chasing tournament glory.

But there won't be a more cathartic triumph than the one the Concordia women experienced Saturday at LCEF Court, where the Cavaliers defeated Seattle Pacific 59-54.

The season has been challenging for the Cavs. Injuries have sidelined several key players, and the team has won only five times in 24 games.

And on Feb. 10 came the stunning announcement that the university will shut down at the end of the current term.

That day, the Cavaliers did not practice. They just sat together and expressed their love and support for one another. The following day, practice amounted to three-on-three and four-on-four games, just to have some fun.

"We're all in a very unique situation. Everybody we know, all of our friends, all of our teammates are going through the same thing," said Olivia Vezaldenos, a junior guard from Manteca, California. "It's weird. We all just feel for everybody and want to be there for everybody. But it's hard knowing there's not a whole lot you can do for everybody else."

So they play basketball, and that time on the floor is a break from the angst that comes with not knowing what turn life is about to take.

That goes for the Concordia men's team as well.

"We're all competitive, so once the ball starts rolling it's a good time to get our minds off of it," said Hunter Sweet, a junior guard out of Beaverton High in his third season playing for the Cavaliers.

"Coach (Roderick Rhodes), since the beginning of the year, has been talking about battling adversity and overcoming obstacles, and this is the biggest obstacle of the year, obviously. The only thing we can do is keep a positive attitude. Our team motto the whole season has been to love the person next to you, love your brother. In times like this, that message really holds true."

The circumstances, of course, impact the entire Concordia community. All of the students who won't graduate by April are wondering how and where they will finish their studies. For basketball players, especially those with only one year of eligibility remaining, the uncertainty is magnified.

Vezaldenos, for example, was scheduled to take her final six credits and graduate this summer, then play next season for the Cavaliers while taking graduate courses. Now, she's wondering what it will take to get her degree, and where she might finish her college basketball career.

"I can say for sure that I did not think I would have to go through this (recruiting) process again, Vezaldenos said. "All the athletes here know that (being recruited) is overwhelming and it's stressful. A lot of people have worked really hard to put themselves in a position where their future was somewhat secure. So it's kind of weird having to redo that all over."

Abby Aplaca, from Waipahu, Hawaii, is finishing her third season at Concordia and never wanted to play anywhere else.

"I planned to be a Cavalier my whole career," she said.

She hopes to play somewhere else as a senior next season, but is trying not to worry about her future. The Concordia women and men have road games Feb. 20 at Northwest Nazarene and Feb. 22 at Central Washington. Their seasons, and their programs, wrap up with home games Feb. 27 against Alaska (Fairbanks) and Feb. 29 against Alaska Anchorage.

"We're trying to find a new normal by working hard for each other in practice and not focusing on outside stuff," Aplaca said. "When we're in the gym, it's only about basketball, and it's about getting better."

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - The Concordia University men's basketball team huddles during a loss at home last week against Simon Fraser.The same goes for the Cavalier men, who like the women have had few victories to celebrate in what was to be a foundational season for first-year coach Rhodes.

Concordia battled throughout Saturday's home loss to a Western Washington team that is tied for second in the NCAA Division II Great Northwest Athletic Conference. But the Cavs are 3-21, 2-14 in GNAC, so they are playing only for pride and the love of competition.

Dakota Ayala, a 6-7 junior from Reynolds High, walked on at Concordia a year ago after one season of junior college basketball. Against Western Washington, he scored a career-high 27 points. Until the announcement, Ayala thought he was going to be part of a bright new future for the pro- gram.

"I know we're having a rough year so far, but it's just the foundation that we're building," Ayala said. "We're trying to build a culture of loving the guys next to you and having a brotherhood. I thought (Rhodes) was going to bring some good guys in. I thought next year we'd have some good pieces and be able to do something special."

After four more games, Ayala will be looking for somewhere else to play his senior season.

"The whole university, I feel like there's a giant cloud over us," Ayala said. "It's just sad to see all these other students, the other athletes who have to find other spots. Even the teachers, their lives are changing. It's just really sad."

The first couple of practices after the announcement were emotional, Ayala said.

"I just wish we could have built something here," he said.

Sean Kelly, Concordia's sixth-year women's basketball coach, said he has been flooded with calls from coaches interested in recruiting his players. Helping his players and assistant coaches cope has been his focus since the closure was announced.

"It's only about them," Kelly said, noting that his wife's job means his financial future is secure.

Some of the most difficult discussions for Kelly were with five recruits slated to join the program next season, including one from London.

Like everything this season, Saturday's win over Seattle Pacific didn't come easily for the Cavalier women. They trailed by as many as 10 points, but finished strong, led by 10 fourth-quarter points from Vezaldenos. Seven of those points came during the decisive 11-0 run early in the quarter.

The victory improved the Concordia women to 5-19 overall, 4-12 in conference play.

"It means everything," Vezaldenos said. "I feel like it's a testament to how hard we work and to how much we care about this program. It was a lot of fun. It was much needed after this long, long week."

• This will be a defining week in Pac-12 basketball:

On the women's side, No. 3 Oregon can wrap up its third consecutive regular-season conference title with wins at California (6 p.m. Friday) and Stanford (6 p.m. Monday). The No. 4-ranked Cardinal are the last big hurdle for the Ducks, who last week built a 26-point lead en route to a 14-point win at No. 7 UCLA. Ruthy Hebard, named Pac-12 player of the week, was dominant in the wins over the Bruins (30 points, 17 rebounds) and USC (22 points, 10 rebounds).

Oregon has approached every game since its loss at Arizona State as an elimination game, and the Ducks have won 12 in a row. Even though coach Kelly Graves felt his team was "out to lunch" on defense against USC, the Ducks won 93-67. At this point, the only Pac-12 team that can beat Oregon is Oregon.

The 14th-ranked Oregon men are tied with 18th-ranked Colorado at 9-4 atop a crowded Pac-12 after improving to 14-0 at home this season. But six teams are within a game of the conference lead, and two of them are the Ducks' foes this week. Arizona State and Arizona are both 8-4 in conference. The Ducks visit the Sun Devils on Thursday and the Wildcats on Saturday; both are 6 p.m. starts. Oregon is an uninspiring 3-4 in conference play on the road, so getting a split would be progress and at least keep the Ducks in the hunt given that their final three games are at home.

• Terry Porter's Portland Pilots will play their final two home games of the season this week. Fifth-place Pepperdine is at Chiles Center at 6 p.m. Thursday, and eighth-place Loyola Marymount visits at 7 p.m. Saturday. Portland is 9-18 (1-11 West Coast Conference) and has lost 10 in a row. The 88-81 loss on Feb. 8 at San Diego is the closest the Pilots have come to winning in that stretch. A contested 3-pointer for the Toreros at the end of regulation forced overtime.

• The Portland women face a significant game at Pepperdine at 7 p.m. Thursday in the battle for fourth place in the WCC. The Pilots are 9-6 with three games remaining — the nine WCC wins are their most since 2008-09. The Waves are 8-6 with four games left. The fourth-place team gets a bye into the conference quarterfinals. The fifth-place team has to win a tournament game to get to the quarterfinals.

Portland beat Pepperdine 69-67 on Jan. 25 at Chiles Center. The Pilots last week posted wins by 22 points over Santa Clara and 20 points over San Francisco.

Portland closes at Loyola Marymount at 2 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Feb. 29 at home versus league-leading Gonzaga. Pepperdine plays host to Gonzaga on Saturday, then closes at BYU and San Diego.The Cougars and Toreros are tied for second at 10-4.

• The Portland State men bounced back from a frustrating loss to Eastern Washington by beating Idaho 90-69 on Monday. It was the second consecutive 24-point game for guard Matt Hauser, whose return from an ankle injury has bolstered PSU's offense. The Vikings (13-14, 7-8 Big Sky) have one game this week, a 7 p.m. Thursday visit from Montana State (14-11, 8-6).

• The Portland State women play at Montana State at 6 p.m. PT Thursday, then have six days to prepare for their final home games, 7 p.m. Feb. 27 against Idaho State and 2 p.m. Feb. 29 against Weber State. The Vikings (12-13, 5-9) have dropped five in a row, including a four-point loss at Eastern Washington despite hitting a program record 15 3-pointers.

• The Lewis & Clark men close with games at 8 p.m. Friday at George Fox and 6 p.m. Saturday at home against Pacific Lutheran. The Pioneers need to win both and need Pacific to beat PLU on Friday to earn fourth place and a playoff berth in the Northwest Conference.

• The battle for the eighth-place spot in the Cascade Collegiate Conference men's tournament comes down to Friday and Saturday for Multnomah. The eighth-place Lions lead Corban by one game but missed a chance to clinch a playoff berth when Corban scored the final 10 points in a 90-80 win on Feb. 15 at Multnomah. Both teams have challenging weekends. Multnomah visits second-place Southern Oregon and third-place Oregon Tech. Corban plays host to fifth-place Eastern Oregon and first-place College of Idaho.

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@pauldanzer


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