By Rob Pettapiece and Brian Decker
WATERLOO, Ont. — They'll be seeing yellow in Thunder Bay for a while.
The Ryerson Rams walked into the University of Waterloo with a stadium full of fans — nearly all of whom were clad in yellow t-shirts and making noise continously throughout the game — and walked out with an 86-70 upset win Friday night over the No. 2-ranked Lakehead Thunderwolves in the first of two OUA men's basketball semifinals.
Ryerson will now advance to their second national championship, and their first since 1999, while the 'Wolves will have to put their Final 8 hopes in the hands of the seeding committee and wait for the wild-card berth announcement on Sunday.
Lakehead, famous for their own raucous home fans, found themselves on the other side this time — crowd-wise and score-wise. A 13-0 run to start the game by the Rams didn't help matters, either. They kept it close, all things considered, reducing their deficit two points to 11 at the half. However, they were never able to get any closer than that, with Ryerson pulling away in the third quarter.
Rams coach Roy Rana wasn't writing the 'Wolves off at the half, though. "We know very well their history. They're a third- and fourth-quarter team, and for them to come back is not unusual. I thought we made a big run to open up the second half. Mental toughness for 40 minutes was huge for us."
Lakehead struggled to space the floor without the three-point shooting of third-year forward Ryan Thomson, who suffered a foot injury last week against Guelph. Without Thomson on the perimeter, the Thunderwolves laboured to find open looks while Ryerson's bigs doubled down in the paint. Lakehead was held to 33% effective shooting in the first half.
Part of the reason the Rams were able to put so many points up on the No. 2-ranked team in the country was first-year forward Aaron Best, who led both teams with 26 points, shooting 11 for 14. Best knew who he and his teammates were up against, but the combination of March and collegiate basketball often leads to upsets and today was no different.
"We knew coming in that they were beatable, just like every team in the CIS is beatable. At this time of year, anybody can win," Best said.
"It's just 40 minutes of war, man."
Jahmal Jones, one of the best players in the country, consistently broke down the Lakehead defence with his inhuman speed, scoring 18 points himself on 7 of 16 shooting and also setting up many opportunities for Best and Bjorn Michaelsen (7 of 14 for 17) to knock down open shots.
Lakehead's Venzal Russell, named OUA West player of the year Friday morning, kept his team in it, scoring 14 of the Thunderwolves' 34 in the first half. Russell finished with 23, second only to Best, and led all rebounders with 12. Russell's efforts, however, weren't enough to overcome Ryerson's initial lead.
Ryerson lost their only other game against Lakehead this year, by a wide margin of 41 points — though that was in the Thunderdome, not on a neutral floor as tonight's game was. It's still only the third loss all year by Lakehead, putting the Rams in the same company as Carleton and Laurier. However, neither team beat Lakehead by nearly this much.
"I don't know if we drew it up this way, but we'll take it any way we can," said Rana. "We're still a very, very young group."
Tonight's win, said Rana, "is just the beginning. This is the next phase now. Now we get to play for a championship."
He continued: "These opportunities don't come all the time so we're just going to savour this one and see what we can do tomorrow."
The third-year coach also gave some credit to Ryerson's five buses' worth of supporters, who helped to fill out Waterloo's large Physical Activities Complex, and might have numbered more than Kerr Hall Gym could seat. "We've never had a crowd like that, that was unbelievable. It was a home game for us tonight. They lifted our spirits and they're a big reason for this win."
Those Ryerson fans spent a lot of time shouting, "You can't guard him!", in reference to Best, Michaelsen, and Jones. Given that Ryerson shot an effective 61% on the night, it seems they were right.