FAIRBANKS — The Alaska Nanooks men’s basketball team’s regular-season finale included a little bit of everything.
There was a celebration for the six UAF seniors that played their last game in an Alaska uniform. There also was a reunion between the Nanooks and their former head coach, Mick Durham, who resigned at the end of last season to take over the same position at Montana State Billings.
And, in the end, the day came to a close with a Nanooks loss.
Durham and the Yellowjackets pulled away to earn a 92-65 victory and clinch their spot in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference Tournament.
“It’s definitely bittersweet,” said UAF senior guard Alex Baham, a Wasilla native. “The ride has been fun, but it’s also time to move on.”
Baham, who scored 15 points in the loss, was recognized with his classmates during a senior day ceremony before the game.
Tre Eisenhut, Isaiah Easaw, Daulton Lootens and Joe Lendway were also recognized before the game and cracked the starting lineup alongside Baham. Redshirt senior Derrit Scarver game off the bench and played nine minutes of action.
While it’s not unusual for college coaches to play their seniors during the last game of the season, it was a special sight to see Lendway in the lineup.
The 6-foot-7 forward from Kansas City, Kansas, suffered a torn ACL earlier in the season. First-year UAF head coach Greg Sparling still let Lendway play, even though it was a brief appearance on the floor.
Lendway missed his lone shot — a 3-pointer from the wing — before Sparling removed him from the game 15 seconds into the contest. He received a loud ovation from the Patty Center crowd as he walked toward the bench for a final time.
“That was really awesome,” said UAF junior forward Michael Kluting, who led all players with 27 points and 10 rebounds. “Talking to him a few weeks ago, it didn’t seem like he’d even be able to get on the court. We were trying to get him a shot, and that was really cool to see him out there.”
Durham and the Yellowjackets didn’t have to worry much during the second half after building a 44-30 lead during the first 20 minutes. Still, the former longtime UAF coach said it wasn’t easy to return to the Patty Center.
“It was a tough day,” Durham said after his team finished its season 15-13 (10-10 GNAC). “I’ve spent a lot of time in this gym, and I wanted to be on the other bench — but they wouldn’t switch. It was good. It’ll be easier each year, because most of the guys will be gone, but it was hard.”
Although Alaska finished 5-22 overall and 2-18 in conference play, Durham said he thinks the future is bright for his old program.
“Coach Sparling will be fine. They’ve got a veteran coach,” he said. “Obviously I’m going through the same thing with the change. It’s hard sometimes when a lot of the guys aren’t yours. He’s got to put his stamp on the program, and they’re in good hands.”
Four Billings players reached double figures, as Brendan Howard led the way with a team-high 25 points. Zack Rollins finished with 16 points and seven rebounds, Zharon Richmond had 14 points and five rebounds and Sven Jeuschede (11 points) also played well in the win.
Even though UAF didn’t get the result it had hoped for, the players said it was fun to compete against their old coach.
“There’s no hard feelings, so it was kind of weird playing against him,” Baham said. “It’s like you want to be his friend but also beat him, so that was fun.”
Junior guard Jalon McCullough scored seven points for the Nanooks, and Jaqua Morrow finished with six.
Kluting said he hadn’t thought about what it’ll be like next year when he’s one of the senior leaders for UAF, but he did say he enjoyed seeing his teammates being celebrated during the senior day festivities.
“I thought it was really cool,” he said. “It was really special, I even started crying a little bit.”
Contact News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal at 459-7530. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMSportsGuy.