‘I know what we can do’: Longwood seniors ready for NCAA spot

Published 6:57 am Tuesday, March 19, 2024

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Friday’s competition is about more than a game for the quartet of Longwood seniors. For some, it’s a chance to set an example. For others, it’s an opportunity to help younger teammates experience what they already have. And there’s also a chance here to show what they can do, to prove all the analysts and projections wrong. 

For DA Houston, it’s about family. From an early age, Demarcus and Tanika Houston taught their children, DA and his five siblings, how to play sports. They shared a love of basketball and it caught on.  

“My brothers, my mom, my pops, all my family, we love sports,” DA said. “My mom, my pops, they instilled that love.” 

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As the oldest, DA was the first of the children to play organized sports. He was also the first to go to college, to suit up and play for a D1 team. And with the NCAA Tournament, as with the Big South Tournament, he wants to set an example. 

“Me being able to reach some of my goals in life, that’s great for them to see,” DA said. “It kinda gives them an example of what they can be and be better than. I know they will be better than me. I have so much love for my family. Being able to meet these goals and being an example they can see means a lot to me.” 

And this NCAA Tournament game is special for DA in other ways. For one, the Houston, Texas native, who played his high school ball at Bellaire Episcopal High, gets a chance to compete against his hometown team in the Houston Cougars, who Longwood plays in round one on Friday. And second, he continues to prove his grandma right. 

“Growing up, she was always like ‘you’re gonna be on tv one day,’” DA said. “I’ve done that and now I’m going to be on one of the biggest stages that kids dream of. I give all glory to God for that. It means a lot to me to be able to achieve that goal.” 

Michael Christmas Brock Challenge

Michael Christmas wants to make the most of his second chance at the NCAA Tournament. Photo courtesy of Longwood University.

A fresh opportunity 

For Michael Christmas, Friday’s game marks a do-over of sorts. He was injured in 2022, the last time Longwood made it to the tournament. Two years later, he gets another chance to step on the NCAA Tournament court and compete. 

“You can’t take these times for granted,” Christmas said. “I learned that when I had my injury and was out for a year. Now this, this is what I’ve been waiting for.” 

His own experience with injury helped him understand what Elijah Tucker was going through, after the sophomore learned he wouldn’t be able to play in the Big South title game. Christmas and his teammates wanted to make sure Elijah knew he wasn’t forgotten. 

“We knew that he was gonna be emotional, not playing in that game, so we brought out his jersey, put it on a seat at the end of the bench,” Christmas said. “Every time we came out, we would walk down and tap the jersey. That was our brother’s (jersey). We wanted him to be a part of (the win) in some way.”  

And that only emphasized what Christmas had already learned. This may be your only opportunity. It’s time to take advantage of it. That mindset helped him put up 18 points on 6-of-10 shooting in the Big South championship, one of several Longwood seniors that dominated during the game. It’s also helped him become more of a leader

“I’m not that much of a vocal leader,” Christmas said. “I’m more lead by example. But I think seeing that influences how everyone plays. I can get fired up.” 

And now, he’s fired up thinking about the opportunity ahead. This is the one that got away. Now he has a second chance to step on that court. 

“You’ve got to be in the moment, to be in the present and pour everything into that,” Christmas said. “Now going into this NCAA Tournament, I want to be a big factor on this team, as opposed to when we went two years ago and I was out.”


Longwood seniors

Longwood senior Jesper Granlund said the team has always been able to play at this level. Photo courtesy of Longwood University.

‘It was just up to us’ 

Jesper Granlund is no stranger to national competition. He’s played over the years with the Finnish National Team’s U-18, U-19 and U-20 divisions. And now, for the second time as a Lancer, he has a chance to play on the U.S. national scene. 

“It feels good, you know, to end my senior season on a high note,” Granlund said. “To get to go to the tournament again, last time was a special feeling and this time feels pretty special as well.” 

The important thing for Granlund, beyond the Big South titles that he’s been a part of, is how he’s seen both his fellow Longwood seniors and the overall team develop. He feels this year’s squad is ready for the national spotlight, not because they’ve been dominant, but because of everything they’ve gone through along the way since they’ve been together. 

“The plan since I got here has been to grow and I think we’ve been doing that the whole time,” Granlund said. “That High Point game (at end of the regular season) made us feel like we could play with anybody and beat anybody. We took that into the tournament. It wasn’t new. We’ve known that we could basically beat anyone in the Big South. It was just up to us to put it all together.” 

Knowing the team is playing its best basketball of the season, Granlund said this run they’re on is something he’s happy to be a part of. 

“This has been something good for me to end on, something to be proud of, to be grateful of,” Granlund said. “It means a lot to me to finish strong.”  

Walyn Napper Longwood seniors

The NCAA Tournament marks one more challenge in a season of them for Walyn Napper and the Lancers. Photo courtesy of Longwood University.

‘The seed we planted, it grew’ 

You can’t just tell a teammate what they’re doing wrong. Walyn Napper firmly believes that. The Lancers’ starting point guard, who earned Tournament MVP after the Big South Championship, says other players need an example to look toward. They need to see it done the right way. That’s what he and the other Longwood seniors on the team have worked to do this year, while taking on leadership roles that were new to some of them. 

“We’ve been meeting with Coach Aldrich all year, talking about how we can be better leaders to the program,” Napper said. “You can’t just tell somebody to go hard in practice if you’re not doing it yourself. We just needed to be more vocal leaders.” 

And over time, those conversations between teammates, those examples helped a team develop into one that was not just able to win three games in three days, but to blow out UNC Asheville 85-59 to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament. 

“The seed that we planted, it grew and produced good fruit,” Napper said. “We’ve been working hard to show the way. I’ve seen all of us grow this year. I’ve seen Elijah, I’ve seen John-John, I’ve seen them all grow. We all just had to come into the program and learn the system. And everyone’s been eager to learn, eager to get better. They took the message and in turn, they helped us learn more about ourselves as leaders. I say we helped them and they helped us.”

Longwood seniors look to Houston 

And now, the Longwood seniors and the rest of this team are headed to the first round of the NCAA Tournament. They’ve heard the tv analysts, seen the projections and all of the noise. They know the Houston Cougars will come in as the favorite. But that’s a familiar story this season. So was High Point and they won twice. So was UNC Asheville and they got run out of the building in the conference tournament. 

“I’m just ready to play some basketball,” Christmas said. “I’m ready to make an upset.” 

DA agrees, pointing out the craziness so far in this college basketball season. 

“I have belief in my teammates, I know what we can do,” DA said. “I don’t want to just be there. I want to get a win. Honestly, I want to get more than one win. I believe we have a team that’s built for the tournament.” 

Tipoff for Friday’s first round game is set for 9:20 p.m. and will be broadcast on TNT.