In a game where two teams struggle mightily to score, one big run is often all it takes.
For the Lakehead Thunderwolves, that one brilliant fourth quarter stretch proved enough to send them to their first CIS championship game since 1977. Lakehead used a brilliant 16-2 run in the final frame, then held on to earn a 66-62 win over the Ottawa Gee-Gees, and a spot in the national title game tomorrow against either Acadia or Carleton.
Joseph Jones, one of six Lakehead fifth-year seniors, hit four clutch free throws in the game's final minute to seal the victory, pouring in a game-high 24 points on 13 shots.
"[Jones] didn't want to end the season today," Lakehead coach Scott Morrison told the media after the game. "It was the same thing last week against Windsor [when Jones scored 23 points in the OUA bronze-medal game]. He had a tough start and we had to get him out of the game. He was turning the ball over and made some mistakes … once he got that three to fall, that was all we needed. We got rolling then. We've rallied around JJ lots of times in the past."
The Thunderwolves trailed 51-44 early in the fourth quarter, but produced a wild stretch that included two triples by Jones.
"I thought we could hang on until the TV timeout," said Ottawa coach James Derouin, referring to the run that saw his four-point lead turn into a 60-53 deficit around the halfway mark of the fourth. "I knew we were going to make one more run and I wanted to keep all of my [three second-half] timeouts. I thought long and hard about burning one. It's really tough with the TV timeouts to burn one at the 5:30 mark. They just made two or three incredible ones and one incredible three [by Jones].
"In hindsight, could I have burned a timeout? That's probably something I'll wrestle with all summer."
Lakehead shot just 30.9% for the game, but scored eight points in 47 seconds with 4:51 remaining in the game. The Gee-Gees would get within four at 62-58 with under two minutes to go, but Jones stepped up again. His timely accuracy at the charity stripe, going 4-for-4 in the last 15 seconds, kept Ottawa from ever having a chance to tie the game.
Second team All-Canadian and fifth-year senior Warren Ward scored 21 for the Gee-Gees, but received little support from his squad in an attempt to reach the championship. Aside from Ward, Ottawa shot just 28% from the field, and was unable to recover from Lakehead's furious charge in the fourth quarter.
Also of note was the high number of fouls. Yoosrie Salhia received two personal fouls after just 53 seconds, and sat the rest of the half. Overall, each team was whistled about 30 to 40 per cent more often than usual, at 24 and 25 fouls rather than their season averages of about 17 or 18.
"I'm trying to say this in a politically correct way — I don't think it had an impact on why we lost," said Derouin about the officiating. "I think Lakehead was probably just as frustrated at times. For me, where I was frustrated was that all season, OUA games have been a war. Everything small, we've been able to play through it."
"The kids only know one way to play because we play 30 games under that style," Derouin continued. "That was an issue, but we did lose our composure. That didn't help with gaining favour with the referees."
The GGODs' victory keeps the championship aspirations alive for a senior-heavy team that has helped revitalize Morrison's program. In addition to Jones, this weekend will feature the final CIS games for forwards Matthew Schmidt, Yoosrie Salhia and Brendan King along with guards Ben Johnson and Greg Carter.
"A lot of people put their blood, sweat and tears into this and here we are," said Morrison. "Last time Lakehead was in the championship game, not one person in our locker room was even alive, including me."
After falling awkwardly with Gee-Gees' centre Jordan Vig, Carter suffered a shoulder injury. He described it as a non-factor for Sunday's final, but Morrison said the guard played the last three minutes of the game with the shoulder "out of his socket."
"I'm assuming we're not going to have him [in the final]. It's the biggest game of his career, if he can give us one minute or 40 minutes, he's going to give us whatever he's got," said Morrison.
The final will take place at 3:30 PM ET Sunday.