By the students, for the students of Central Washington University

The Observer

By the students, for the students of Central Washington University

The Observer

By the students, for the students of Central Washington University

The Observer

Men’s Basketball Crowned GNAC Champions

Wildcats bring home gold for the first time in 13 years
Jacob Thompson
Samaad Hector driving into paint. (Photo by Jacob Thompson/Thompson Sports Media)

The CWU men’s basketball went through a gauntlet in the GNAC conference tournament but were able to come out on top after a hard-fought season. The tournament was held on March 7-9 and for the first time since 2011, the conference championship was hosted here in Ellensburg, Washington.

The Wildcats came out on top in the championship game vs. the Alaska Anchorage University Seawolves with a final score of 78-69. CWU will now be participating in the NCAA’s DII college basketball playoffs bracket. Senior forward Samaad Hector capped off a great season being named the MVP of the 2024 GNAC Tournament. He finished his play in the championship match where he had a 22 point and 14 rebound double-double which was his ninth of the season.

This game sent CWU’s three seniors off into the sunset in front of their home crowd: Hector, guard Anjaylo Lloyd and last year’s leading scorer, guard Camron McNeil. All three athletes played a massive role in getting the Wildcats to this point and all of their hard work has paid off with some hardware.

Head basketball coach Brandon Rinta spoke about Hector and McNeil and the transition that McNeil had to go through this season. McNeil led the team in scoring last year and had to share the ball a lot more this year, resulting in his scoring taking a hit. “They are the most energetic and vocal leaders that I’ve ever coached,” Rinta said. “And Cam [McNeil], yeah this year looked different but how he handled it and adjusted, it was easy for him because all he cares about is winning.”

With the three seniors playing their final home game, McNeil talked about the emotions that came with playing in the Nicholson Pavilion one last time. “It was something running through my mind this whole time just realizing this could be my last game playing in Ellensburg and I never wanted it to end,” McNeil said. “I know that it had to come to an end at some point but to be able to go out on a high note like this feels incredible.”

The Wildcats were 15-1 at home heading into the championship, and the Wildcat faithful showed up to pack out the Nicholson Pavilion and made sure to take advantage of the tournament being held at their home court; around 2,500 people showed up to support the team. “That’s Central Washington Basketball right there, ” Coach Rinta said. “They love their basketball. It’s got a rich tradition and I just feel grateful that we were able to put another chapter in that. There is so much pride in the guys that have worn that jersey.”

The Wildcats were able to move onto the final round of the GNAC tournament thanks to one of the biggest shots ever made in the newly renovated Nicholson Pavilion. The score was 78-80 with the Montana State University Billings (MSUB) Yellowjackets in the lead when the GNAC Player of the Year, Jalen Tot, missed two free throws with 14 seconds to go. CWU freshman guard Bradley Swillie grabbed the rebound off the missed free throw, he drove to his left then passed the ball to the wing for Hector who put up and drained a three pointer with 4.6 seconds on the clock. Hector’s shot went in and Nicholson Pavilion went into pandemonium. MSUB had 3.1 seconds on the clock and couldn’t make the shot to win the game which led to the Wildcat faithful storming the court. The Wildcats came out on top 81-80 sending the Wildcats to the final round and making Hector’s heroics one of the most important shots in CWU men’s basketball history.

Hector said after the MSUB game that his shot to advance to the championship was the number one moment of his basketball career; the emotions he felt after that shot were comparable to his feelings after the final buzzer rang as his team was named conference champions. “I remember a bunch of different emotions really,” Hector said. “I didn’t know whether to scream, laugh or cry. Really everything’s just exhilarating. We play hard and by the time that clock went off and all the hard things we’ve done throughout the past three days and past four months, it really paid off.”

The Wildcats finished off a historic season with hardware as they took home the GNAC championship and now they will travel to Los Angeles, California for the DII NCAA playoff bracket. Looking forward to next season, the Wildcats will be losing three key seniors but have seen promising signs from underclassmen on the roster as they look to run it back and repeat as champs in the 2024-2025 season.

Cam Mcneil hyped up in championship game. (Photo by Jacob Thompson/Thompson Sports Media) (Jacob Thompson)
Anjaylo Lloyd after step back three pointer. (Photo by Jacob Thompson/Thompson Sports Media) (Jacob Thompson)
Pavilion packed out for GNAC Championship. (Photo by Jacob Thompson/Thompson Sports Media) (Jacob Thompson)
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