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SPU has flavor of East Side

Falcons open NCAA D-II playoffs today

Patrick Simon and Shawn Reid were starving for minutes. Andy Poling was simply starving.

All have moved far from the big arenas of Spokane, Pullman and Bozeman, finding basketball fulfillment in the remoteness of … Seattle.

Throw in a pedigreed sophomore from Ferris High and a coach who learned at the feet of a Spokane Valley legend, and you have the feel-good story of men’s basketball at Seattle Pacific University.

It’s also a tale of East beats West. Last weekend, the Falcons finally got the measure of Western Washington, the defending Division II national champion, in the Great Northwest Athletic Championship game, 72-70.

“That was something special, especially for a championship,” Poling said. “They’ve gotten us a few times in a row, so it was great to get over that hump.”

In the process, the Falcons (25-3) got a head start on March Madness, which begins in earnest with today’s first-round NCAA Division II tournament game in Bellingham against Grand Canyon College. It’s the ninth straight playoff appearance for Seattle Pacific, the longest current streak in Division II.

For that, Falcons fans can reach a thankful hand across the Cascades; 40 percent of their points and almost half their rebounds this season were imported via I-90.

First came coach Ryan Looney, who had “an unbelievable experience” playing at Central Valley under Terry Irwin in the early 1990s. “That’s what steered my interest into coaching,” said Looney, now in his third year.

First down the highway was Poling, a 6-foot-11 center from Portland who gained a full ride at Gonzaga, but couldn’t gain any weight. Instead, the pounds were dropping, along with his confidence. He left Gonzaga in January 2010 then transferred to SPU and took some time off while doctors learned that allergies were to blame for his low weight.

Now Poling is a healthy, 255-pound presence inside for the Falcons, averaging 10.3 points and 3.8 rebounds.

“When we need a basket in the low post, he’s the person we go to,” Looney said. “And with his size, he’s provided a lot for us defensively.”

A year later, the Falcons recruited Ferris star Riley Stockton, the nephew of Hall of Famer John Stockton and the only easterner who took a direct route to Queen Anne. Now a sophomore, Stockton averages 6.4 points and a league-leading 7.6 rebounds per game.

Next came Shawn Reid, a star forward at Post Falls who played for two seasons at Montana State before leaving because of declining playing time – and play time – in Bozeman. “I don’t snowboard or ski – I’m not really that outdoorsy of a person,” Reid told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle last spring. “I felt it would be better if I went somewhere where I could be happy and develop myself as a person.”

While Reid has struggled to overcome a broken hand suffered in preseason, the Falcons picked up another gem in Patrick Simon of Ephrata, who has seen more than a few teachable moments since he made an oral commitment – at the age of 14 – to play for Washington State.

After playing only six minutes per game last season, Simon chose to transfer. WSU coach Ken Bone, a former star at SPU, knew just the place and helped with the transition.

“Going from Pullman to Seattle was “a shock at first, but I’m definitely used to it now,” said Simon, the Falcons’ third-leading scorer and rebounder at 13.2 and 4.5, respectively.

Says Looney, “He wanted an opportunity to play more on game day, perhaps a different environment, and I think he found those.”