VANCOUVER — Whenever the Final 8 has don't-look-away drama such as the UBC-Ryerson overtime affray late on Thursday night, even the most jaded get as much of a glow as the athletes. That can mean, about a hour later, long after everyone has gone home for the night, the mind goes to wondering whether this game can get the ball rolling to help Canadian university basketball receive its due.
Then comes the dreaded déjà vu of knowing this has been preceded by several Shining Moments that have just ended up being but a memory for a select few, since it is nigh on impossible to awaken a nation to everything right about Canadian Interuniversity Sport. There were some memories made for that UBC crowd of of 2,800 that rose and fell as two teams went for that spot on Semifinal Saturday. It had everything you would get in any bracketed tournament involving very tall student athletes.
Two teams from 3,300 km apart ended up with no separation across more than 40 minutes, with the nothing-to-lose No. 8 seed Thunderbirds coming within one score or stop of advancing; the The No. 1 seed that was 3,300 km from home — "No one on our team had ever really played on this side of the country," he Rams' Adika Peter-McNeilly noted — overcoming to survive and advance. The bow on the evening, in a couple senses of the word, came from Rams sixth man Jean-Victor Mukama, twice: an oxygen-sucking dunk down the stretch, then that triple for the tie at the end of regulation.
"That was a high-entertainment
basketball game, high skilled, high drama," said Thunderbirds coach Kevin Hanson, only nominally the losing coach after his charges refused to roll over even though this UBC collective came in with no Final 8 exposure. "I really hope the fans and the kids that came and watched that game understand how good the CIS
level is. I thought that was a great basketball game."
"The fans got value for their buck. I was proud of our guys, they left it on the floor."
In sports, as the cliché goes, you must have one winner or loser. Some try to soften that to 'you have to have a winner.' The unintended consequence of that line is that feeds into Us vs. Them in society. The reality of each pastime, to quote a Mick (Jagger) in reference to a game late on St. Patrick's Day, it is about the old 'if you try sometime, you might find, you get what you need.' That was writ large on Thursday night.
Each of these teams, which both embody the tectonics in Canadian basketball and within criminally underrated CIS, got what they needed. Neither was derailed by its fifth-year all-Canadian sitting the whole first half with two fouls. Thunderbirds forward David Wagner didn't get a call on UBC's last possession of regulation, but had 22 across 28 on 9-of-13, even though his low post opposite, Ryerson's Kadeem Green, is the springiest shot blocker this side of the border. The 'Birds also v had only 22 minutes from Conor Morgan, who fouled out late. Ryerson's Aaron Best was never in the flow offensively with five points across 25. His first post-halftime shot was a runout dunk with nine minutes left.
The T-Birds student section played their role like a NCAA student section, filling in with an "Over-rated! Over-rated" chant when it was a seven-point game with 2½ left. Yet Ryerson, very-Carleton like, just continued to whittle at a spread: it was eight with eight minutes left, six at the six-minute mark, then stayed there until Ryerson got off the ropes. Ryerson played through that and addressed, at least for 48 hours, how a team so thoroughly Toronto in its play and personality was going to handle being on the Left Coast.
"The way we stuck together is amazing," said Peter-McNeilly, whose 25 points, nine rebounds and four steals across 41 minutes were each Ram highs. "In the fourth quarter we were down eight with fewer than five minutes to go. We never broke faith; we never pointed fingers at each other.
That's what makes it so special."
Not to listicle this, but here's what made it a great basketball game, on any level.
Contemporary design vs. classic model
There are two main streams in Northern hoops, in the broadest possible sense. Ryerson, with a virtual all-GTA team, embodies Hoopstown, Canada, the hotbed where Andrew Wiggins and Nik Stauskas have developed their games before going on to play in bigger ponds, under bright lights.
The rotational Rams really won the day, with Super-Ute Mukama hooping 19 across 32 on a 60 per cent eFG. Roshane Roberts, the stout guard who is a basketball equivalent of a great third-line centre, had 13 points across 28 turnover-less minutes.
The 'Birds reflect the region that has produced future Hall of Famer Steve Nash and the Boston Celtics' shooting big Kelly Olynyk. They were fundamental. Not much clearing out, not much iso-ing or hero-balling, just get ball, see exposed space, fill it with a pass.
Even though this was a first exposure to nationals for pretty much everyone, and their two of their three best 'basket attackers' sitting with fouls, they rose to the challenge. The 'Birds shot an effective 57.9% to Ryerson's 57.1%. It's funny, with Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors and the acceptance of analytics, everyone is getting trigger-happy with the three-ball. The 'Birds threw it back to when the triple a means and not an end. They were 8-of-15, with German guard Philip Jalalpoor hitting 3-of-6 to finish with 17 in the first game his parents had ever seen him play in Canada.
Ryerson's deal is they play off an engaged crowd that knows the game in its soul. The edge to that is that they can fight it once out of their element, like a comic or a band playing an apathetic room on a weeknight. (See their loss to Guelph in mid-February.) Yet when it comes together, they're magic.
The Rams' one design flaw is interior D, since the separation from Peak CIS and D1 is athleticism and size on the inside. Green, a lean 6-9 who played D1 at Missouri (SEC) and Ohio (Mid-American), is not only the level of the spring-loaded 6-10, 6-11 built-to-spec bigs down south. The Rams make up for that with skill, including one-guard Ammanuel (Manny) Diressa, another ex-D1 who hooped for Tennessee Tech.
What seems to happen with Ryerson is teams go to that well and build a lead. It wasn't apparent that was their deal until January. They had to come back on Jan. 22 when they beat a No. 1 team, Ottawa, for the first time, as the Gee-Gees came in with their 'Brathan McMaracle' post platoon of 6-8 Nathan McCarthy and 6-7 Brody Maracle, was ahead much of the way before Ryerson won 87-80.
The Rams surmounted a 13-point halftime deficit in the OUA Wilson Cup against Carleton (73-68). Thursday, or Friday back home by the time it ended, they were down as much as 15 at 33-18 in the second. Peter-McNeilly tripled twice to start a 12-4 run.
Yet the Rams didn't get a lead until a Green layin early in the five-minute overtime.
"I definitely thought we had it," said UBC forward Jordan Jensen-Whyte, whose 25 points topped the T-Birds. "The
whole game, I thought we had it, definitely."
A crowd that came out of the blue
The Mitch was designed as the secondary hockey arena for the 2010 Olympics, which means it was designed to look beautiful and leave a legacy, of sorts, that has no regard for whether it will be an appropriate venue for post-Games use. The basketball 'Birds play regularly at the old War Memorial gym, while The Mitch is home to the hockey 'Birds.
When empty except for anticipation, it evokes B.C., though. There's no 200 level, just light-blue seats rising from the sunken floor to the concourse. Sea to sky.
Who knows, or cares, what it's like to play or watch hockey there. Thursday, Vancouver basketball fans, even if they only numbered 2,800, took it over whether they were there due to UBC ties, to see basketball, or were actually fluent in CIS. They stayed on top of favoured Ryerson the whole game. Perhaps the "Over-Rated!" chant was a kiss of death, but, hey, they knew their role.
Sportsnet's Tim Micallef, at the end of his call of that 2009 Queen's-Western Yates Cup football game, summarized it, "I'm not sure anybody lost; we just ran out of time."
Ryerson showed their superiority by rallying in an alien environment and holding the lead across the final 3:47 of OT. It was the kind of galvanizing first game on which runs to cutting down the nets are made.
"The guys are tenacious, they held their composure," said Ryerson's 31-year-old coach Patrick Tatham, the first-year skipper that took over after Roy Rana took a needed sabbatical. "We had to find a way to stop the bleeding, just find a way to get stops. Second half, we took away the three but then they started going inside with Wagner, really hurting us inside."
There is no consolation for UBC that it lost. But remember that scene in the movie Without Limits that depicts Steve Prefontaine's fourth-place finish at the Olympics, getting bumped out of the bronze in the final stride after leading much of the way, and his coaches say, "What more could he have done?" That was UBC.
In the NCAA with its longer shot clock and ability to kill time, hang in for the next media timeout, they would have pulled it off and become the first 8 seed to win since CIS went to FIBA rules (24 to shoot) in 2007-08. Coincidentally, the last 8 seed to advance, Saint Mary's in 2007, did so in the last pre-FIBA Final 8.
"It physically drains you when you're leading, Conor [Morgan] picking up his third hurt us," Hanson said. "Some guys were out of position a bit, give them credit, heck of a basketball team."
The reference to a movie that depicts the 1972 Olympics isn't meant to tweak UBC, whose last title was in '72, also the last time it hosted. Total coincidence, honestly. Speaking of which.
Comeuppance for UBC
Plots need antagonists. As much as one should laud the Ryerson comeback, for UBC locally this was a wet firecracker of a finish after a two-season build-up to finally playing nationals at home. The overtime loss to a Ryerson team playing long after midnight in the East was also piled on top of the playoff loss to Thompson Rivers — one of those "CCAA teams" that Hanson is still in a twist about having in Canada West.
The game also didn't sell out, with the 2,800 turnout being smaller than what Ryerson drew for its turn hosting nationals in 2015. Ryerson has much less tradition and a lower profile in Toronto's busier sports market.
That amounts to losing their last two meaningful and winnable games of the season, based on the three letters on the front of the uniform. A lot of people, in and outside the Lower Mainland, will label that a burn on the 'Birds. After all, UBC styles itself a legacy university, with 51 CIS championships across an unending variety of sports, including the 2015 Vanier Cup.
Of course, you have to temper that knowing the young men wearing those uniforms were new to nationals. A UCLA comparison is apt, since UBC does have a certain air of entitlement about it, but it's also like a CIS answer to Indiana, trying to get back to what is was. The result was in service of it.
"I haven't been here in three years," Jensen-Whyte said. "What it's going to do for us, since we lose David Wagner, who was great tonight, is that we have experience for the 11 guys strong coming back. Hopefully that motivates us to work harder in the summer."
The irony of it was, in terms of each particular team, UBC's players were more endearing losing than their predecessors. At Eastern nationals, the T-Birds had two outcomes: losing their game somewhere on the plane ride out and exiting quickly, San Jose Sharks-style. Or getting to the final only to come up shy. To be fair, 2016 was the first nationals in B.C.'s time zone in 44 years, and first played in Western Canada in some 30.
With a minimalist media culture around the game, case studies and historical precedents and a team's ATS record are just off in the ether, or in the recesses of an obscure-sports obsessive's mind. Ryerson needing overtime in their first game evoked Carleton, in its first championship run in 2003, also going to OT in a coastal city. Those Ravens, with current coach Rob Smart Jr. as the fifth-year guard, dashed the upstart UPEI Panthers in overtime in Halifax. That sparked them along.
Of course, this is/was written not knowing how the rest of the weekend will/would play out for Ryerson.
The other part to was that, unlike in most examples of Big Sport, was that the game had no hype. This is a failing on the promoters' part, but it works for the hoops hipsters who love the CIS game. Less is more in sports consumption. Extrapolated into a NCAA model, there would have been days of, "is Ryerson ready?" and "does UBC deserve their seed?" from talking heads engaging in faux-bate. By the time of tip-off, you would have been sick of it all.
At CIS level, there's a constant potential for surprise. Although, sometimes it seems surprised there are people who want to watch them play.
Crouching Carleton (and hidden Tigers, one supposes)
Knowing the winner would have to play another game, against Calgary, just to get a shot at scaling Mt. Nevermore, AKA the Ravens.
Mea culpa; it's a scream, now, that people thought much would change for Carleton after Dave Smart and Phil Scrubb, parted ways, undefeated last March. The Anybody But Carleton hopes don't flowing out of hate or resentment of the Ravens. It comes more from knowing it is tough to sell a product where the ending is always the same.
The limited media profile of CIS, and the shrinking of legacy media, makes for little space to get into the built-in advantages some teams have. It's not something that be easily explained in the 140-character universe, or during a timeout on the floor.
However, would it be so bad that if someone pointed out what Dave Smart figured out at Carleton, and how it is completely on the level and within rules of CIS?
One has to back up to how Carleton came into being. The 'Last Chance U' and 'K stands for Kwality' demean its noble origins as the place that was founded in the mid-20th century for military veterans and mature students, smart people who hit their stride a little later. The school has gone away from that, but it is a place where a partial entrance scholarship is a given for a student who developed good work habits in all facets, which reflects how the Ravens get after it every day. Being in Ottawa, a government town, also means practically no-end to summer jobs and co-op programs.
That is the support D1-quality players need to stay in the Canadian system, which is more of an avocation than big biz like the NCAA. For Carleton, it aids in a key determining factor CIS should aspire to when it comes to making all sports more competitive. It needs to become more reachable at the intake point, where athletes can getting into school and afford it. In a basketball context, it helps when the players can stay on campus and work out year-round, something pro-player that is actually proscribed by the rule-happy NCAA.
Case in point for the latter point. In the mid-'70s, there was a talented small-town shooting forward who had left a Big Ten program. He was potentially drifting, marking time, but part of what sold him on trying a Missouri Valley team was that their players stayed together year-round and were a tight unit.
Of course, that last graf was structured to help you intuit that was Larry Bird. How did he work out?
While 99% of Canada's sports fans were checking NCAA Tournament scores on their phones, it was discovered The Mitch's scoreboard can only go to 99. It is a hockey rink, after all. So a 101-94 Ryerson lead in the overtime was displayed as a 94-1 T-Birds lead.
So the numbers wouldn't roll over to 100, but UBC didn't roll over. Both teams ended up kinda/sorta breaking the scoreboard. It was uniquely Canada; we can be so adorkable sometimes for the No-Puck Sports. Does that make us the Zooey Deschanel of sports nations?
The CIS vs. NCAA element was there and not there. It is always kind of in the background, but the two are almost as different as analog and digital.
See all of above. Hopefully that gets why one wishes more people could have seen it, but why it is okay that they did not.
To be honest, this post sprang from fretting that not enough people heard about this game. On further review, that is fine. They'll get there, just like Ryerson and UBC are trying to do.