Aylward: Tale of two Thunderwolves teams

Mike Aylward summarizes a memorable day in the life of Lakehead sports, with the basketball Thunderwolves earning their first CIS tournament bid since 1977, the year Star Wars was made and the men's hockey team hosting a Queen's Cup vs. McGill.

A sense of urgency. This is what drives top teams at crunch time in the playoffs.

Saturday I watched two games featuring Lakehead Thunderwolves men's teams which were night and day in terms of demonstrating a sense of urgency and a will to win.

Lakehead's men's basketball team was in Ottawa on Saturday to face the Ottawa Gee-Gees in the OUA bronze-medal Game with a national championship berth at stake. Both teams knew it was win or go home.

Lakehead's men's hockey team, the OUA West champs, was hosting the OUA Queen's Cup championship game against the OUA East champion McGill Redmen. Both teams had already qualified for the upcoming CIS championship to be hosted by Lakehead at the end of the month. At stake was OUA bragging rights and a better seeding at the national championships.

In the afternoon I watched a thrilling basketball game on vidcast from Montpetit Hall in Ottawa; a place where the Wolves had not won in a very long time (in fact they hadn't beaten Ottawa at all since Nov. 10, 2001). This year Ottawa hammered Lakehead in the regular season at the Thunderdome in T-Bay so it looked like the Wolves had their work really cut out for them. The Gee Gees, led by the fantastic Warren Ward (29 points), were in control for much of the game; twice having double digit leads. However the Wolves hung in there and never quit working. Despite turnovers and mental errors; they kept displaying a sense of urgency.

As has happened many times this season; Lakehead put up a furious fourth-quarter effort. Sophomore guard Greg Carter (Ottawa) was dominating on defence, frustrating OUA East player of the year Josh Gibson-Bascombe, while Lakehead post Yoosrie "Mini-Tim Duncan" Salhia (Toronto) was a force on the boards (16 points, 11 boards, 3 blocks).

The Wolves clawed their way to a big lead of their own. Senior guard Jamie Searle also showed his iron will by nailing five three-pointers. The Gee Gees, led by Gibson-Bascombe (16 points) and fellow fifth-year senior Donnie Gibson (16 points), then showed their own sense of urgency and made it tight in the last minute.

Fans in attendance at Montpetit Hall, myself and viewers around the world were glued to the action. Lakehead held on for the 78-73 win and a berth at the nationals for the first time in 33 years. The G-GODs had a date with Scotiabank Place and the Final 8. Both teams had given it all they had and left it on the court.

I felt elation as the victorious Wolves hoisted Carter up in their arms and celebrated a huge win that kept their breakout season going. I also felt a lot of empathy for the valiant Gee-Gees who had played with heart and guts and had fallen just short. However, I thought, "that was a hell of a game!"

Switch to Saturday evening and the Queen's Cup at the Fort William Gardens in Thunder Bay.

The setup: this was a rematch of the 2006 game in which Lakehead had beaten McGill 4-0 in Thunder Bay. The Redmen were in town to get some revenge and the Wolves were ready to show that the Gardens was their barn.

Take no prisoners; the Queen's Cup on the line.

I was there live with a sold-out crowd of more than 3,800 and we were all expecting a scintillating hockey game.

Boy, were we disappointed. Frankly, it was a very boring game.

Congratulations to McGill for taking their 18th Queen's Cup title with a 3-1 victory and displaying a bit more sense of urgency than the host Thunderwolves. McGill played fine positional hockey and a very sound system, keeping Lakehead mostly outside and blocking a lot of shots.

The big crowd was eerily quiet from the get-go and it was a strangely mellow atmosphere for a championship game.

It started out promising with some good chances at both ends and some big hits.

After McGill built their lead to 3-1 by the end of the second (and for many stretches before that); the game was pretty sloppy and disjointed and the Wolves never showed that they had any fire in their bellies. Maybe knowing that they were already in the nationals had taken away their urgency, or it was simply an off-night. The offensively talented Wolves had their chances but always seemed like they couldn't quite get a handle on the flow of the game or to take advantage of their opportunities.

McGill wanted the Queen's Cup more and played well enough to win. Goaltender Hubert Morin was solid and McGill's defence also was sharp. The Redmen took advantage when they had their chances. They were the better team this night.

However to be honest, I didn't get much of a feeling of anything after watching this game. It was great to see the happy Redmen celebrating with the Queen's Cup but it was a lacklustre game for a title match.

I would observe that both teams will have to ramp it up for the upcoming nationals if they want to be contenders for a national championship. Lakehead will definitely need to kick the tires and light the fires in two weeks time.

Basketball Notes: Congrats to Lakehead coach Scott Morrison and his staff for their success after a lot of hard work and an often bumpy voyage.

This will be Lakehead's first visit to the nationals in 33 years and will be their fourth ever appearance; their best result is silvers in '72-73 and '76-77.

Ottawa's Ward is a tremendous player, and only being a sophomore, will surely be one of the best players in CIS in years to come.

I predict Lakehead freshman Anthony McIntosh will be a star in the CIS. The Ottawa native had eight points in the win over Ottawa and had more minutes in this game than he probably had the whole season. He also delivered a punishing hanging sideways dunk near the end of the game which shows the potential he has to add some high flying skills to Lakehead's attack.

Lakehead better practise their foul shooting all this coming week from the time they wake up, in class, and even while they are sleeping.

Andrew Hackner delivered 10 points against the Gee Gees; including a crucial trey as the fourth quarter wound down and the outcome was in doubt. Hackner is known for his ferocious defenxe and also for leading the OUA in three-point shooting. Hackner is the son of Brier and World Curling Champion Al "The Iceman" Hackner, so I guess making clutch shots is in the genes.

Hopefully Lakehead Athletics can dig deep and find some coin to send their hardworking Sports Information Director Mike Bennett along with the Wolves on their nationals visit to Ottawa next weekend.

Hockey Notes: Congratulations to McGill interim coach Jim Webster for bringing the Queen's Cup back to Montreal in his first season at the helm of the Redmen. The experienced bench boss has put a very effective system in place with the Redmen and they will be a tough matchup at the nationals.

Congrats to McGill player Andrew Wright for scoring two of the three Redmen goals and being named Queen's Cup MVP. He also blocked some shots and played a great game.

Did I mention how quiet the Fort William Gardens was for a Queen's Cup Game? And it wasn't just because Lakehead was down; I think the guy with the Dyson vacuum used the right amount of suction to drain the energy out of the place before the game even started.

It was great to see Lakehead star forward Brock McPherson out on the ice. He missed a lot of the season due to injury and was still in top form Saturday night. It will be interesting to see if and how much he will find his hockey legs in the two weeks leading up to the nationals. His return to full strength would be a major boost for the Wolves.

Finally ... something that irked me. This is Lakehead's ninth season of men's hockey in the OUA and their success is well-known in CIS circles. The team gets huge support from the people of Thunder Bay and leads the CIS in attendance each year and most of the fans are not Lakehead students; though they are often a boisterous and colourful minority. In the team's first eight seasons; the Lakehead student section was in a prime spot for home games at the Gardens; between centre ice and the blue line behind the visiting team's bench. However, this season, for some reason the students section has been moved to one of the ends.

I am sure that the Thunderwolves Hockey brass could give some excellent and rational explanation of why the change happened. Personally, I think that it's still a university team and that students should front and centre to cheer on their team. In this case, it's back a bit and a bit off centre ice.
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