European Tour Notebook: Lancers explore between victories in Paris
Published 2:46 pm Friday, August 18, 2023
We start with Tuesday, Aug. 8. There’s time set aside on the trip for educational activities, and others to focus on basketball. And then there are moments set up for pure fun and togetherness. After Longwood’s short flight from Paris lands on the Cote D’Azur, the players head to the center of bustling Nice and the waterfront. After a quick change into bathing suits, they find themselves — players, coaches, staff — in the back of a speedboat in the Mediterranean Sea, trying to summon the courage to latch themselves into a parasail.
“At first nobody wanted to do it,” forward Trey Hicks says later. “But then a couple guys start saying, ‘come on, we’ve got to try.’ And finally it’s like, ‘OK, we’ve all just got to do it.’”
Massie and Saxby Sunderland stepped up first, but Hicks was eager and soon found himself gliding a hundred or so feet above the deep blue water. Even guard DA Houston, who didn’t exactly love being high above London when the team visited the London Eye (a giant glass ferris wheel), summoned the courage. So did Coach Griff Aldrich.
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More challenging is the high-speed tubing — three players at a time at water level, but dragged behind as the speedboat whips them around like a basketball on the perimeter when the Lancers’ offense is humming. Hicks got the outside seat, which took the most centrifugal force and was the roughest ride.
“I was just getting thrown all over,” he laughs. “He was good at throwing the boat, and I was just getting clobbered.”
The guys have a few bumps and bruises — luckily athletic trainer Leah Radigan is along for the ride — but mostly big smiles.
For Hicks, whose parents, from Louisville, were among some players’ family members who joined the group, this kind of bonding is the heart of the trip.
“We’ve already been together six weeks during the summer, so we have a good grasp of who everybody is,” he says. “But the experience is really strong, doing stuff like the London Eye, just walking around the streets and meeting people in a different culture. We’ll have stories about this we’ll tell for years.”
Game three. So far, Longwood has been tested by travel and culture, but not yet truly on the basketball court. That’s about to change. The un-air-conditioned gym in Golfe-Juan, just beside the coastal city of Antibes, is an absolute oven in the August Mediterranean heat. The opponents are tougher, too — more experienced, including several with American Division I experience. For much if not most of the game, their five on the floor are as big, or bigger, than the Lancers. More importantly, this is a club team that plays together regularly — not a collection of All-Stars. They run real offensive sets and know each other well, and it shows.
The Lancers build a 48-40 lead at halftime, but in the third quarter suddenly find themselves in a real battle. Golfe-Juan whips the ball around the perimeter, and two of their sharpshooters suddenly can’t miss from 3-point range. They cut the lead to 53-52 with 4:30 to go in the third quarter. Aldrich calls timeout. A minute later another 3-pointer puts Longwood’s opponents ahead 56-53.
It’s a key moment of the trip. The Lancers are tired, the gym is broiling, and they have lost momentum; it wouldn’t be shocking for this one to slip away. But it’s also an opportunity for veteran leadership, and senior guard Walyn Napper steps up. Trailing 60-58 with 1:25 left in the third, Napper drives hard to the rim off a fast break, converts to tie the game, and draws a foul. He misses the free throw, but 7-foot Longwood newcomer Szymon Zapala grabs the rebound and scores a put-back to give Longwood back the lead. Then Jesper Granlund blocks a shot, and Zapala scores again on a dunk off the break. Napper forces another turnover after that. The free throw shooting touch is missing all night, but the Lancers’ powerful defense-into-offense engine fuels this very fast, very big late third-quarter run. In a flash, Longwood turns a deficit into a 10-point lead heading into the final quarter. The Lancers pour it on the rest of the way to get their third victory of the trip — but the first that didn’t come easily.
“One thing I like about this team is, previous teams I’ve been on, you fall behind like we did, you’d have one or two guys trying to take over and do it all themselves,” Massie says afterward. “We didn’t do that. We elevated on our talent and our toughness, we elevated to a higher level. We made it look like a big win even though it was a contest.”
After thanking the local fans, Longwood gathers in what passes for the locker room — certainly the least fancy one they’ll see all season. Aldrich tells the team there’s plenty to work on, but he’s proud of how they responded to the challenge — and the effort they’ve shown throughout the trip.
“I hope this has been really fun basketball,” he tells them. “You guys have put in work that will really pay dividends. You’re connecting with one another, and you are learning to fight.”
Later, on the bus back to central Paris, Aldrich calls the final game a really good test.
“That was a true team, not a group of all-stars,” he said. “They were older, more experienced players. Their style of play was much more challenging. They were running sets and they had plays every time down the floor, and it was a more physical game. It really exposed some areas where we need to get better. But it made us really sharpen ourselves, and as the game went on, you saw that happen.”
It’s the end of the journey, with one final day to explore Nice — the tight, winding alleys of the Old Town, packed until the early hours with visitors from all over the world, filled with restaurants of every cuisine imaginable. Many of the players join the throngs at the beach. A few take another go at parasailing. On Friday, they will scatter until the academic year begins back on campus in a few weeks. Longwood’s European players get a chance to stay on their home continent a little longer, and the Americans get some brief time back with their families before the semester, and the pre-season, truly get underway. One thing is certain: This team, and its staff and supporters, have a strong head start.
Editor’s note: This is the second of two travel notebooks, written by Longwood Chief of Staff Justin Pope as he details the Longwood men’s basketball team’s experiences in Europe.