Clark men's basketball on hot streak headed into postseason

By Micah Rice, Columbian sports editor

Published:

 

NWAACC Men's Basketball Championship

When: Saturday through Tuesday.

Where: Kennewick

First round: Clark College vs. Chemeketa, 6 p.m. Saturday.

Live stats and broadcasts: www.nwaacc.org/basketball/championship/

Twenty-two wins in a row.

A 24-1 overall record.

Only two of 16 conference wins decided by fewer than nine points.

There's little doubt Clark College is favored to win the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges men's basketball tournament, which begins Saturday in Kennewick.

If there's extra pressure with those expectations, you wouldn't know it by talking to Clark's players.

The Penguins wear a target on their back as a badge of honor.

"We know we're going to take everyone's best shot," guard Sean Price said. "Everyone is saying 'Let's be the team to take them out.'"

But taking a shot and hitting the mark are two different things.

Che Dawson has coached for 10 years at Highline, which gave Clark one of its tougher tests Feb. 22. Clark won 57-54 in the regular-season finale.

"They are very disciplined defensively and make it hard to penetrate," said Dawson, who won an NWAACC title in 2006. "They also shoot the ball very well. You have to speed up the game and not allow them to get in a rhythm offensively."

When Clark gets in synch, they can be hard to stop. In the post, the Penguins have NWAACC West MVP Colin Spickerman. On the perimeter, Clark is shooting a conference-best 40 percent from 3-point range.

It's a classic pick-your-poison dilemma made more potent by the chemistry the Penguins have developed.

"We've only been together for a short amount of time," Spickerman said. "Still, we know our tendencies, where people like to shoot and where to get each other the ball."

Player turnover is rapid at a two-year school such as Clark. Two key sophomores are in their first year with the team -- Spickerman transferred from Alaska-Anchorage and Max Livingston came from Hawaii Pacific.

That makes the cohesion of this team remarkable.

"It's a group I would categorize as selfless," coach Alex Kirk said. "We have a lot of guys who could put up bigger numbers on other teams. But they have chosen Clark for a reason, and that reason is a championship."

You won't find many Clark players among NWAACC leaders in individual statistics. Price, Clark's leading scorer at 19.2 points per game, ranks 13th in that category. Spickerman is the NWAACC's seventh-leading rebounder with 9.5 per game.

One individual standout is Livingson, who is among the NWAACC's best 3-point shooters. He made 76 shots from behind the arc for 48 percent. Both stats are second-best in the conference.

"It helps me completely in the post," Spickerman said. "I have confidence that whoever I kick it out to can hit the open three. That relieves so much pressure."

Clark lost its only game Nov. 26, a nonleague road game at Peninsula College in Port Angeles.

Since then, the Penguins have won in every possible manner. They've won shootouts (breaking 90 points six times) and defensive slugfests.

"Each win gives you more momentum," Price said. "You say 'Let's bring this tally up from 18 to 19 to 20. When you get a team down and you've won so many games in a row, it's almost like deep down they know they can't come back."

Clark hopes that momentum continues through the tournament, where the winner will be crowned on Tuesday.

To claim the title, Clark must win four consecutive games beginning Saturday at 6 p.m. against Chemeketa (14-13, 9-5).

"We feel confident," Spickerman said. "I wouldn't say overconfident. But if we come focused and prepared, we'll be fine."