Russell, Havocs portray a pretty picture of GCU
By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
DeWayne Russell almost closed out his Grand Canyon University career with a stunning victory. It still was enthralling.
Peter Jok of Iowa, Rodney Pryor of Georgetown and, especially, Kindred Wesemann of Kansas State did win. It was entertaining.
But the biggest winners of all Thursday night in the 29th annual College Slam Dunk & 3-Point Championships were the Havocs student cheer section and the University they represent. The judges were the basketball players from 23 other NCAA Division I teams and the national audience on ESPN, and their vote matched the Havocs’ level of intensity — way beyond enthusiastic.
The scene at GCU Arena got intense right away when Russell was matched in the first round of the men’s 3-point competition against Torian Graham of Arizona State and soundly (emphasis on sound, thanks to the Havocs) defeated him 19-13.
It ended dramatically when Russell sank all five of his shots from the rack of balls in the corner of the court right in front of the Havocs, who had been going crazy the whole time but dialed up the decibels even more as Russell took the lead.
“That was definitely cool,” he said. “I’m just happy they all came out and supported me. I’m honored and blessed to be in this situation.”
It was a different story for Graham, who drew boos from the Havocs when he was introduced before the event. He told reporters afterward that while he normally likes playing in front of a hostile crowd, this time he was so nervous, his right leg was shaking as he shot.
“They got me,” he said. “The crowd got me.”
Russell’s point total, tied with Matt Jones of Duke and behind only Jok’s 21, qualified him for the semifinals, and the crowd continued to spur him on to an even better performance: 22 points, tied with Jok for the most and well ahead of Derrick Walton Jr. of Michigan (15) and Jones (14). This time, Russell made all but one of his shots in front of the Havocs as GCU coach Dan Majerle, standing prominently at midcourt, punched the air with his fist.
Russell was treated like a conquering hero by both the other participants and the hometown crowd, and it made for a dramatic final. Jok went first and put up another 20 points (on 25 shots from five racks around the 3-point arc, with one point for each regular ball and two for the red-and-white ball in each rack), so Russell faced another challenge.
He had been practicing every day for the last year, often taking shot after shot on the west court in the Lopes Performance Center as pickup games swirled nearby. Now he wanted to make all that work come to fruition with national recognition, and he came close, finishing with 16 points.
“I wanted to win,” he said afterward, standing at midcourt with Majerle. “I’m just a little bit upset I didn’t get it done.”
But Majerle still was thrilled: “DeWayne shot the ball great,” he said. “I’m not surprised — he’s a great kid. Great exposure for him. Great exposure for GCU.”
And great exposure for the Havocs, who didn’t let the disappointment of Russell’s near miss affect their sense of humor.
When Jok was interviewed for all to hear by the ESPN crew right in front of them and it was mentioned that it was his birthday, the Havocs immediately started singing “Happy birthday.” Later, Jok stood at the center of the court, and the whole crowd joined in a rendition.
The placement of the Havocs and the cheer and dance teams on the west side of the Arena, right behind where the players sat, couldn’t have been more perfect. The participants noticed them right away, and it didn’t take long before several of them were Snapchatting selfies with the Havocs in the background.
“They would turn around and say, ‘Dude, this place is wild,’” Havocs president Steve Hunsaker said. “I heard a few of them say they wish their student section was like this. One coach even came up to us and said, ‘How do you do this?’”
Twitter picked up on it, too. Two posts that were displayed on the Arena screen:
“This Grand Canyon University student section is a joy to watch. What all student sections should strive for — fun.”
“I don’t know much about GCU, but that student section is LIT. Dude in a diaper eating a pineapple? You can’t make this up.”
Titus Converse, the dude in the diaper with the pineapple, was asked why a bunch of the Havocs were waving fruits and vegetables in the air. His fitting answer: “It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but who cares?”
The women’s 3-point competition was won by Wesemann, who was adopted by the Havocs because her team, Kansas State, primarily wears purple. “They’re amazing,” she said. “They’re so loud.”
Wesemann had wowed the crowd at the start of the night when she was the only player to make a half-court shot in a special competition, and her 26-point performance in the semifinals was by far the best of anyone, man or woman. She followed that up by even defeating Jok in the special men’s winner vs. women’s winner faceoff that ended the 3-point event. They tied 16-16, but Wesemann won on a tiebreaker.
The real star of the slam dunk portion of the festivities was 6-foot-2 A.J. Merriweather of East Tennessee State, who had the crowd mesmerized with his leaping ability and creativity. But he couldn’t convert a difficult dunk — he was trying to toss it high in the air, catch it on the bounce and slam it — and Pryor prevailed by making a tamer throwdown on his first attempt.
But there was nothing tame about this night. The Havocs saw to that, and first-time visitors couldn’t miss it.
“I think everyone was super impressed,” said Steve Flaherty, manager of communications for Intersport, which put on the event. “It was great having DeWayne here, and this crowd was pumped.”
Russell was like the unofficial host for the other players, and the topic of conversation on the bench kept turning to one thing. They were shocked to find out that there usually are far more Havocs — they normally occupy the entire east side of the Arena as well as some sections behind the baskets.
“That’s all they asked about — is it like this every single game?” he said. “I told them, ‘Every … single … game.’”
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.