Washington, D.C.’s Gonzaga Eagles are trying something different this season. After being powered mostly by a senior-laden attack last year, head coach Steve Turner is counting on a few talented sophomores to direct his team this season. Vying for the school’s fourth-straight Gonzaga Classic tournament title, it was the play of point guard Nate Britt, the heart of combo forward Kris Jenkins and the timeliness of swingman D.J. Fenner that helped the Eagles edge the Charlotte Christian Knights 54-49 on Dec. 13 at American University’s Bender Arena. After breezing through the first two rounds of the 22nd annual tournament, Gonzaga and Charlotte Christian met up in one of the more anticipated battles in tourney history.

Led by senior power forward Anthony Gill (19 points), North Carolina’s Knights had ripped through a pair of opponents on their way to the school’s first ever Gonzaga Classic final. Hot shooting and athleticism had earned them a place in the title game but missed free throws and one last missed three-pointer clipped them in the final game. Playing their most complete contest of the three-day tournament, Gonzaga roared to an early lead. Behind the steady hand and cool shooting of Britt, Gonzaga sped to a 10-point first-half lead and continued to nurse the narrow margin for most of the game.

Whenever the Knights would make a run, Gonzaga made sure to answer. If it wasn’t a jump shot from Britt, then it was a post move from Jenkins or a three-pointer from Jenkins. The 6-foot-6-inch forward had an answer for almost everything Charlotte Christian could draw up; Jenkins even took a chance at guarding Gill, battling the South Carolina University-bound big man to a frantic finish.

“We just had to be tough,” Jenkins said. “ get every rebound, box out and contest every shot because they were real athletic and strong and I think we did that.”

Charlotte Christian erased another 10-point lead late in the fourth quarter to close to 52-49 with 12.4 seconds left. The Knights successfully ran a play to get their best shooter, senior swingman Worth Smith, a wide-open three-point attempt but Smith’s shot clanged off the back of the rim and Gonzaga senior guard Cahli Thomas corralled the rebound and sank the ensuing free throws to help his school capture its 2010 crown.

Jenkins and Thomas led Gonzaga with 13 points apiece and Britt, the tournament’s MVP, added 11. The fresh-faced point guard needed help carrying a collection of trophies after the game but it was a task he gladly obliged to.

“It feels great, Britt said. “I got the support from all my teammates, my coach and my family and they push me to get better everyday. It just so happens I had a good tournament”

The Eagles will enter a nine-day break before they take the court again against Don Bosco on Dec. 21. With exams coming up, coach Turner knows it’s a break well-needed. But also knows it’s a break well-earned after another successful Gonzaga Classic run.

“We want to win it every year,” Turner said. “It’s exciting, it’s a good tournament… and for us to be able to get this kind of play early in the year allows us to get into a tournament-type situation that we’re going to see at the end of the year when we’re trying to win our league. To have something like this happen early on and to be able to win a tough game against a very good Charlotte Christian team means a lot.”

Stephen D. Riley

Special to the AFRO