OTTAWA — Warren Ward and the Ottawa Gee-Gees are inching closer to the final everyone here wants to see.
The big take-homes from Ottawa's 82-70 quarter-final win over McGill is that coach James Derouin's Gee-Gees got the best break they could have asked for ahead of their showdown against Lakehead, which could set up a hotly anticipated national title game against the Carleton Ravens. In the tournament's protege vs. mentor matchup, Ottawa took control early on the strength of Ward's 23-point, 11-rebound double double and a who's that kid? 12 off the bench from human adrenaline shot Caleb Agada. Ward's teardrop three that took the lead out to 13 with 5:32 to play sealed it, but coach Dave DeAveiro's dog-on-a-bone Redmen made Ottawa work until the final buzzer.
"Coach DeAveiro has those guys playing about as hard as anybody and if anything’s going to prepare us for Lakehead, it’s McGill," Derouin said in praise of his and Ottawa's former coach. "They played right to the end, they played hard and we just gotta find a way to get back ready for tomorrow. It’s a national championship semifinal. We know what Lakehead does, we know they defend, and we know they’re one of the top teams in the country and we gotta be ready to do what we did today.
"It just didn't seem like it would end," Derouin added. "We had guys looking up at the scoreclock."
The two coaches didn't talk much until the post-game handshake.
“He’s disappointed they lost, but he said ‘good luck tomorrow and you guys are going to get ‘em,’” Derouin said. "He’s been telling me most of the season that we had a really good chance of winning the whole thing this year and unfortunately we ran into each other first-round and somebody’s got to lose. But he’s a believer in us and our program and he thinks we got a shot.”
“Friendship kind of goes out the window there for at least 24 hours anyways on game day," Derouin said. You can’t say enough about what Dave’s done with that program. First time at nationals in … I don’t know when 1979 was, it’s a long time ago. And he’s a great coach and they played a great game. I have a lot to thank to Dave for me being in this position. Again I thought he did a great job and he’s doing an unbelievable job with that program.”
The upshot for Ottawa is that it broke 80 despite a 2-for-10, six-point day from leading scorer Johnny Berhanesmeskel. Third-year post player Gabriel Gonthier-Dubue was his usual redoubtable self with 15 points and eight boards, while Ward carried the day. It all played out in a way that seemed to mix a number of Gee-Gees storylines from across the last half-decade — the season-ending losses to Lakehead in DeAveiro's last season at Montpetit Hall and Derouin's first, and the neverending challenge of being a garnet-and-grey Sisyphus rolling his boulder up Mt. Smart off Bronson Ave. across town.
"It’s just a storybook ending for me," said Ward, the fifth-year wing. "Now I play a team that beat us at the buzzer my third year [in the 2011 OUA semifinal] and beat us in our own gym my second season, it’s going to be special. It’s going to be good."
Ottawa also played like it expected to win.
"The celebration seemed pretty tame, I thought, for a team that’s going to the national championship semifinals so that tells me the guys understand there’s more work to be done," Derouin said. "When it comes to nationals, you look at the minutes on both teams — 33s and 35s and 37s — we just gotta rest up. Having the earlier game [Friday] helps us a little bit — a couple extra hours’ rest, we’re just gonna get food and fluid. These guys are young. There’s no time to be tired at this point.”
A Carleton-Ottawa final was never in the cards during the seasons DeAveiro guided the Gee-Gees to the tournament. The McGill skipper, who has revitalized the Redmen much like he did after taking over a moribund Ottawa team at the dawn of the millennium, demurred from putting himself into the story. An Ottawa-Carleton final wouldn't be in the offing, though, if it hasn't been for the makeover he gave the team, before Derouin made it his own.
"I have no place in that, this is James' program," DeAveiro said. "He's done an amazing job with this team. The team's gotten better throughout the year and his kids believe in him and believe in what they're doing. You don't want to play that team. They're very good right now and they have a good chance to win."
McGill, making its first appearance at the tournament since 1979, will try to find solace in winning its consolation-side games. The Redmen got nice lines out of Vincent Dufort (18 points, nine rebounds on 6-of-12), Te'Jour Riley (16 and six), Winn Clark (13 on 6-of-12) and Simon Bibeau (12 on 4-of-9). But lead guard Adrian Hynes-Guery was largely contained, shooting 2-of-9 and scoring just four points across 35 minutes.
"We've been really resilient all year," DeAveiro said. "I'm proud of our kids. We just played a really good team that was better than us.
"If we don't win tomorrow and go 0-2 here, it'll be the same old story, same old song, 'Quebec doesn't deserve to be here.' We have to win two more games [in the consolation side]. It was important we come here and win some games at nationals."
The 18-year-old Agada was the revelation. The Burlington, Ont., native was a prize recruit out of Assumption Catholic, but he barely saw the floor during the Gee-Gees' playoff drive (11 minutes in three games). But Ottawa didn't get untracked until he checked in late in the first half and got two big buckets, a tip-in and a three just before the buzzer that put Ottawa up 28-27 at the break. Agada had 11 points on 4-of-5 in 16 minutes.
"Sometimes as a coach you just gotta play a hunch and Caleb's been doing a great job in practice," Derouin said. "When you back up a guy like Warren Ward sometimes you don’t get a chance to show how much [you’ve] improved over the course of the season. And we talked this week about the fact that with Vince Dufort at the 4, who’s more of a guard than a post player, we knew that we might have to go with our smaller lineup.
"To be honest with you I just had a gut feeling that Caleb was the guy to give us some energy. In the first half, when we picked up the pressure a little bit with him on the floor, I thought that was a big turning point and he’s an energy guy and we needed energy at that point. We had 19 points or whatever at that point and we were just really struggling but what can I say, the kid hasn’t even turned 19 years old yet, he’s a pure freshman right out of high school ... Just an incredible performance and you know what, we don’t win this game without him today, that’s for sure.”
For what it's worth (very little), Ottawa beat Lakehead 82-67 in their Nov. 24 regular season meeting at Montpetit. The seventh-seeded Thunderwolves needed a big lift from their shooters in the early game against Cape Breton, shooting an effective 65 per cent in the second half and getting 25 points overall from Ben Johnson on 7-of-11 from the floor (Johnson missed his only two).
Lakehead's Greg Carter is a disruptive on-the-ball defender who will be going against some young Ottawa guards in Mike L'Africain and Mehdi Tihani. The Thunderwolves are arguably more seasoned in the post with fifth-year bigs Brendan King, Yoosrie Salhia and Matt Schmidt.