NNU Nighthawks’ Head Men’s Basketball Coach Paul Rush humbly quoted previous coach Coach Layton when he said, “I’m interested in what I’m not capable of, because then I know God gets the glory.”
Nothing could be more evident in Coach Rush’s coaching style. In an after-game interview, he said, “We talk to the guys all the time and say, you don’t have to be anything other than who you are… I think that’s what you saw tonight. We know who we are, and we know what we’re capable of doing. Defense wins championships. We can bring the defense and win us a championship.”
After the amazing win at the 2023 GNAC Men’s Basketball Championship game, GNAC Sports interviewed Coach Paul Rush and players Ryzin (Biggie) Bergersen and Gabe Murphy in a postgame press conference. Here is that interview.
GNAC Host: The 2023 GNAC Men’s Basketball Championships, and we are with your champions Northwest Nazarene with a 65-57 victory over Saint Martin’s. Joining us in the postgame press conference is head coach Paul Rush along with student-athletes Ryzin (Biggie) Bergersen and Gabriel Murphy. Coach, what an incredible game and what a showing tonight by NNU. What are your thoughts on a very outstanding performance from the Nighthawks?
Coach Rush: At halftime, Gabe was sitting and praying; and if you watch Gabe, about two minutes left in warm-ups, he’ll come over to the bench, and he sits down and prays with his hands open. At halftime, he was sitting there praying, and he had his fists closed, and I pulled his hands open, and I said, “Gabe, it doesn’t matter what happens in the next 20 minutes. God loves you. I love you. We’re just going to go play some basketball, so hold it with open hands. I don’t know how much God cares about winning and losing, but I do know He loves these guys. In this season that we’ve had, I’ve said this before, but the adversity that these guys have overcome, the perseverance they’ve had. We believe perseverance produces character, and that character is why we’re sitting here right now because of the character these guys develop through a lot of perseverance, a lot of staying together and staying focused on the right things. So yeah, it’s amazing.
GNAC Host: Biggie, you were named tournament MVP. Twenty-two points tonight, 7-10 for the field, six and seven from three-point range, along with four rebounds and a big steal in the first half. You were perfect in the first half, and you keep that 11-2 run that set the pace for the Nighthawks. What were you feeling during that first four minutes?
Ryzin (Biggie): St. Martin’s was playing a zone. We talked about it yesterday and this morning…
Coach Rush: Don’t give away all the secrets!
Ryzin (Biggie): They were playing off me, and I trust myself. I know my coaches trust me. I know my teammates trust me. It’s just trust. I can knock down those shots. I put in the work, and I just hit them.
Coach Rush: And then after that, he’s wondering, “Why doesn’t coach run more sets to me? I haven’t missed yet. I should be getting a couple more shots.” That’s what I was thinking at halftime. I was looking at the five out of five, going, “Why have I never run more sets to him? Gotta give Biggie more shots.”
GNAC Host: Gabe, you finished with 9.5 rebounds, but it was clear that you were playing very solid defense inside against St. Martin’s talented center, Shakeem Alcindor. Talk about the defense there in the blocks.
Gabe: I didn’t have my shot going tonight. Sometimes you hit them; sometimes, you don’t. It wasn’t my night, and I just had to figure out a different way to impact the game. These guys really put a lot of trust in me. They were challenging me a lot going into this tournament to really put my step on stuff on the defensive end and play it as strong as they see me do in the weight room and in practice, so it was just trusting that effort and having that type of energy on the defensive end. We had a lot of guys in double figures tonight. I had to impact it one way or another.
GNAC Host: When the game ended, you went down to your knees immediately, and the emotion on your face was clear. Talk about your emotions when that scoreboard hit three zeros.
Gabe: Man. It’s been a wild past six months for me in life. I’ve been through a lot of adversity and through a lot of life stuff. It hasn’t been a lot of fun. Biggie can tell you about that stuff. I was in the ER a week and a half ago with atrial fibrillation. It’s when your heart’s out of rhythm, and there were legitimate thoughts going through my head that when we played Simon Fraser at home, that was going to be my last basketball game. To have God lead me to the stage and to be able to compete with these guys, and I have all these opportunities after, like I thought two weeks ago, it was gonna be my last game. In the ER at two o’clock in the morning, wondering what’s going on. Going from all those things happening to being able to win a GNAC Championship as a six-seed man, this is something that only I can only attribute to God’s hand in my life. So that’s why I had a lot of emotion for sure. It’s been a really hard year and a really hard season for me personally and us as a team. To be able to have this moment with these guys means everything to me.
GNAC Host: Can you talk about the defense tonight? It was an overall solid defense all the way up and down the roster, and particularly you and Tru Allen on the point guards that kept St. Martin’s off balance.
Ryzin (Biggie): Like Tru said yesterday in his post-game interview, we had to identify our defense. We know if we can hold teams to a certain number, it doesn’t matter how good or how bad we are on offense, we’re gonna win the game. So I think everyone down the line, every single person that goes into the game, plays their hardest on defense, that just wins us games.
GNAC Host: Paul, NNU is the second lowest seed to win the GNAC Championships. Only outdone by Alaska last year who was the 10th seed when all 10 teams made the tournament. Aaron Landon talked yesterday about the fact that NNU really wasn’t a sixth seed because of that three-way tie for fourth place, and he was convinced that any of those three teams could compete any day, but even still, you’re on paper as the sixth seed. What does it mean for this program, for what you’ve built here, to reach that mountaintop in a year where I think some people had the Nighthawks written off?
Coach Rush: The other perspective is at the beginning of the season, us and St. Martin’s, were ranked one and two going into the year. I attribute that to bad decision-making and bad coaching early in the season with what we were running offensively. We were still really good defensively. As we changed up what we were doing offensively, I put these guys in a better position to be successful on the offensive end, they started playing the way they were capable of. I think there were only five in games that Gabe missed and one and three in games Biggie missed, so when we get the whole group together, I would agree we’re not where our seed is. I was just telling these guys in the locker room I’m not surprised we’re here. I know that sounds a little arrogant, but I just know who they are as men and what they’re capable of as basketball players and as a basketball team. So, I’m not surprised we’re here. It’s a lot of fun being here. I would attribute our record, and that, to support coaching decisions early on. I attribute our success to the perseverance and character of this team. I know I’ve said this a lot, but the way these guys showed up consistently. I’d lose three games in a week. We got beat by St. Martin’s at the beginning of the year it was our fourth loss in a row at home. All four games at home, and these guys showed up. Practiced hard on Friday, won the game on Saturday. Their maturity, their perseverance. Gabe did something, and I can’t remember when it was in the year. He typed out and printed off for every guy and every coach in our program what he saw in them and what he saw them bring into our team, and then a note at the end saying, “We need you to be the best that we’re capable of being.” That’s one of the best leadership moves I’ve seen from a player in my years coaching. That kind of leadership and the perseverance and character of this group has been so impressive. I could keep going with different guys and different examples, but I think them overcoming my bad coaching is why it took us so long to be where we are. Keeping guys healthy definitely makes a difference too.
GNAC Host: Well, the trophy is headed back to Nampa, and Northwest Nazarene has sent it to the NCAA West Regional after a 65-57 win over St. Martin’s in the finals of the GNAC Men’s Basketball Championships. Congratulations again! Enjoy the moment. Best of luck in the regional!
Gabe: Thank you! Appreciate you!
Coach Rush attributes much of the team’s cohesiveness to the integration of faith, hard work and perseverance. The Nighthawks are headed to the NCAA Tournament West Regional on Friday, March 10, in San Diego, California, at Point Loma Nazarene University. Watch the game at nnusports.com/sports/mens-basketball.