Another Milestone, Arizona Christian Back in NAIA Round of 16

Add a new paragraph onto Arizona Christian University’s resume: Opening Round Hosts of the NAIA Mens’ Basketball National Championship Tournament.

For the past five consecutive seasons, the ACU Firestorm has qualified for the 64-team NAIA national championship tournament. This year, the Glendale-based school added another milestone moment by earning a No. 1 seed in the tournament in back-to-back years. And beyond that, the campus was given the opportunity to be one of 16 sites to host the opening two rounds for the first time in school history.

The Firestorm earned an automatic bid by bagging their third straight Golden State Athletic Conference regular-season championship but again fell short of another conference tournament championship. Regardless, ACU was ranked second in the nation in the NAIAโ€™s final poll of the season and was awarded one of the four number-one seeds in the tournament.

AZ Christian, the top seed in the Liston Quadrant, protected home court in the first two rounds by downing #16 Corban (Ore.) 61-59 and #8 Antelope Valley (Cal.) 92-73. Next, the Firestorm head to the annual site of the NAIA Basketball Championships in Kansas City, Mo., to battle #4 Morningside (Iowa) in the Round of 16 on Tuesday. The victor plays in the quarterfinals the following day.

“I am proud of our guys for not giving up, I expected some rust as we have just played once in a couple weeks,” Head Coach, Jeff Rutter said after the opening round of the tournament. “This group has not been able to play much together with all the injuries we have dealt with so we are not as sharp as we should be. We played great defense and that put us in position to win.”

Once again, Arizona-raised talent played a massive role in the success of the Firestorm faithful. Former Sunnyslope Viking, Paul Hayden has played more minutes than anyone and leads the team in scoring with 12.8 points and 27.7 minutes per game this year. The junior also shot over 50% from the field and 41% from the three-point line. The 6-foot-5-inch guard was a member of the GSAC All-Tournament Team and combined for 19 points in the Firestorm’s first two NAIA tournament games.

Sophomore guard, Trent Hudgens, is another name to know as the former Ironwood Eagle is second in scoring with 341 total points (11.4 per game). His fellow Ironwood grad, Dominic Gonzalez, is now a junior and attributes another 6.4 points per game for the Firestorm.

Senior, Bryce Davis, was an NAIA All-National Tournament Team member last year and has once again been a menace for the Firestorm. The former Deer Valley Skyhawk averaged 11.6 points per game and 5.5 rebounds per game while also nearly shooting 50% from the field as a six-foot-7-inch forward. Another former Skyhawk, KeyVaughn Williams, has had his share of court time with 26 minutes per game for the senior to tally the most assists on the team with 134 dimes (4.3 per game).

And you can’t forget about the Estrella Foothills alum, Shaun Wahlstrom. The six-foot-eight-inch big man has played valuable minutes off the bench with an even average of four points and rebounds per game.

These six Arizonans average 50 of ACU’s 80 points per game while also averaging 21 rebounds, 10 assists, and 6 steals per game.

In the 2019 tournament, ACU set tournament and program records in their upset of Loyola en route to a quarterfinal appearance. With a wave of momentum, Arizona Christian was slated to enter the 2020 tournament as a five-seed until the postseason was canceled due to the rise of COVID-19. 2021 saw an opening-round loss in the tournament but the Firestorm returned famished in 2022 with an appetite for history. The Firestorm earned their first quadrant championship but fell just short of the trophy after a loss to eventual champion, Loyola (La.) in the semifinals.

The tournament caps off the eleventh year with Rutter at the helm of the Firestorm mensโ€™ basketball program. Over the past eleven years of Rutter’s leadership, ACU has made eight national tournament appearances and collected over 250 victories. In 2023, Rutter was also named the GSAC Coach of the Year for the second straight season and for the third time in his career.

This is the 85th edition of the NAIA National Tournament, the oldest college basketball tournament in the nation. For the past five seasons, ACU has accumulated at least 20 wins each year and have tallied 26 this season, tied for second-most in program history behind last year’s 31 victories.

Arizona’s repertoire continues to gain credability in the NAIA. Arizona Christian wasnโ€™t the only Arizona-based school to make the 64-team national tournament. Cross-town rival, Ottawa University from Surprise, also made the prestigious tournament as a seven-seed on the opposite side of the bracket. Ottawa won their Round of 16 game against #11 Southeastern (Fla.) 79-71. OUAZ will play in their first program quarterfinal appearance against fourth-seeded Montana Tech on Wednesday at 1:00 p.m. MST.

Tuesday’s Round of 16 game tips off at 5:00 p.m. MST. The will be no rest for the weary as these final four rounds take place over a brutal six days resuming with their quarterfinal match on Wednesday at 5:00 p.m. MST. You can keep up with live stats from the game here.