The scene unfolding before Joe Golding (’99) looked like a cross between Norman Rockwell and one of those cheesy, straight-to-Christian-bookstore feature films. In his first year as the men’s basketball head coach at Abilene Christian University, Golding had gone to Trinity Christian High School in Lubbock to recruit diminutive sharp-shooting point guard and straight A student Parker Wentz.
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“He had his gym bag in one hand,” Golding recalls, “and a Bible in the other with his backpack over his shoulder. I thought, ‘You gotta be kidding me. This is too good to be true.’ ”
Wentz wasn’t. In fact, if he has been anything in his four years at ACU, Wentz has been good and true.
Saturday, in his record 119th game as a Wildcat, Wentz will be one of six seniors (four from the men’s team, two from the women’s) playing for the last time at Moody Coliseum. Each has been part of something significant.
Whitney (West) Swinford
The careers of the two four-year players among them, Wentz and Whitney (West) Swinford, are strikingly similar – and not just because their last names sound alike or that they’re approximately the same height. Both were instant impact freshmen during ACU’s final year in NCAA Division II. Swinford was named Lone Star Conference Freshman of the Year on a team that won 21 games and a share of the league title en route to the NCAA playoffs. Wentz started 10 games and was his team’s fourth leading scorer. They will be the last two to have played on each side of ACU’s transition to Division I.
Both are among the best three-point shooters in ACU history. Swinford’s 229 threes are second only to Ashley (King ’06) Bannon. With one regular season game left and at least one more in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, to which ACU was officially invited Thursday, Swinford has an outside chance to become the Wildcats’ all-time outside shooting leader. Wentz has the highest career three-point field goal percentage (.429) and is third all-time with 257 made. His accuracy has been jaw-dropping, which should serve him well at dental school where the academic All-America candidate is headed this fall in preparation to join the family business.
Both leave a legacy of selflessness. Out of necessity, women’s head coach Julie Goodenough moved Swinford from her natural position off the ball to play point guard. When two of his backcourt mates missed almost the entire 2013-14 conference season for various reasons, Wentz played the point and led the Southland in minutes played per game with 38.6 out of 40. And despite being the player every opponent tried to neutralize, the high-energy guard who stands a generous 5 foot 9 inches tall still averaged better than 18 points in the final 15 games.
Both have been remarkably durable. Swinford has missed one game in four years (because of food poisoning in 2014). Wentz has missed none.
Both have been clutch. Swinford has buried huge threes and free throws, many of them on the road, in the closing seconds of games to turn losses into wins. Of the 403 shots Wentz has made in his career, the most memorable may be one that never went through the net. In ACU’s first Division I season, Wentz raced the length of the court against the University of Central Arkansas with five seconds left and lofted a layup that was blocked but ruled good because of defensive goaltending.
And both leave ACU in the double bonus, so to speak: Wentz got married last July, Swinford a month later.
The only other senior on the women’s team (which had none last year) is Paris Webb, a point guard from Midland in her second season with the Wildcats after transferring from Central Arizona College. When ACU stumbled out of the gates at 0-3 in conference play last season, Goodenough told her team the starting five for the following game would be based on the next two practices. Webb earned one of those five spots and had 10 points, four rebounds and four assists to rally ACU from a 10-point second half deficit on the road and beat McNeese State University, which helped rechart the course of a season that saw the Wildcats finish 17-12 overall and 10-8 in the league.
This year, on a team dominated by the best starting five in the Southland Conference, Webb was Goodenough’s most trusted reserve until leading rebounder Lizzy Dimba suffered a season-ending and heartbreaking Valentine’s Day ACL injury. As she did the year before, Goodenough inserted Webb into the starting lineup. ACU has won each of the five games since to clinch at least a share of the Southland title, which they can win outright with a victory Saturday. In those five games, Webb has twice set career highs with six assists and also established a new personal best with seven rebounds.
Now in his third season at ACU, Austin Cooke transferred, like Webb, from Central Arizona and immediately became one of Golding’s go-to guys. A 6’7” forward with a feathery stroke and tenacity on the boards, Cooke started his first 73 games at ACU then returned the starting lineup midway through the conference season. He led the team in rebounding in each of his first two seasons and has been a consistent long range threat, making 47 percent of his three-point field goals in conference games.
Jalen Little and Duran Porter came to ACU to play their final two collegiate seasons, but both command locker room respect like four year veterans. Each calls the other the team’s leader, and there is ample evidence to support both assertions. Little, a point guard from Colorado Springs, Colo. – by way of the University of Alaska-Anchorage and Otero Junior College in La Junta, Colo. – is the emotional catalyst. He keeps his finger on the pulse of the team by dividing his free time among his teammates. A true pass-first point guard eager to distribute the ball, Little’s scoring has increased as the number of games in his college career has dwindled. Last year, Little had just one game in which he scored 10 or more points. This season, he’s had six double-digit scoring games in his last nine.
If you can’t get along with Porter, a.k.a. “Du,” it’s probably your fault. Quick with a smile, the soft-spoken Southern gentleman from Macon, Ga., is everyone’s best friend. He played through an injury early last season that kept him from ever getting into peak physical condition, so his numbers weren’t much to look at. Not that he could’ve seen them anyway. A visit to the eye doctor last summer revealed that Porter’s vision was terrible.
Wearing contacts this season and 20 pounds lighter, Porter’s productivity has been a sight for sore eyes. He has scored at least 10 points in 13 games, including a career-high 17 in a narrow loss at the University of Nebraska; and he has more than doubled his blocked shots from last year, from 13 to 27.
The ACU men’s basketball program has begun to turn the corner, doubling its number of conference wins from four to eight with a chance to make it nine Saturday. And though his fabulous freshmen Jaylen Franklin (16.3 points per game) and Jaren Lewis (5.7 rebounds per game) lead the team statistically, Golding thinks his four players to be honored Saturday may be the most influential senior class in nearly 20 years because of how they have led the youngsters.
“They’ve been by my side every step of the way,” Golding says, “helping us change the culture of men’s basketball here. Saturday will be an emotional day. There will be a lot of flashbacks going through my mind.”
Including, no doubt, that first glimpse of the little big man in Lubbock who was every bit as good and true as the coach could’ve dreamed.