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CIS/CSI Toronto: The Birds! (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?)

This is a Crime Scene Investigation. Forensics experts are still dusting for box score prints, still freeze-framing the game tape for clues about how the championship match of the Canadian Interuniversity Sports men’s basketball championship could have gone so right for the Ravens, so wrong for the Gee-Gees. Five minutes into the game, it looked like Alfred Hitchcock was directing Carleton’s birds. It looked bad for Ottawa’s horses, in a dance marathon where they suddenly didn’t know the steps, couldn’t endure the exhausting pace, and had to keep dancing long after they felt dead. Five minutes into the third quarter, any doubts were dispelled. CSI Howdy’s first report was here, then came some sort of consolation, the Final Four, and then this Apparently Inevitable Denouement:

Well, that didn’t even make sense.

Even my sports/TV/Movie mashup title is more logical than a result that sees the Ottawa Gee-Gees, the consensus No. 2 team in the country — and which claimed the top ranking for a time after defeating the Carleton Ravens in January — being so thoroughly whipped. 93-46. Ninety-three to forty-six. 46?! UOttawa is the highest scoring team in the country, with one of the nation’s top scorers in “Johnny Basketball” Berhanemeskel and a collection of other gunners.

That's the venerable Mr. McGee, front and centre, with a flock of happy Ravens behind.

That’s the venerable Mr. McGee, front and centre, with a flock of happy Ravens behind. Smart is second-row left, though he often flees the flashbulbs. (photo by Chris Roussakis, GoRavens.ca)

It was an AWESOME performance, a great and dynastic team playing near-perfect basketball for extended periods. It was surgical, clinical, a beating that was almost worse because there was no taunting or showboating or visible glee. The Ravens don’t bother with distractions like that. They’re All Business. This isn’t personal, Ottawa. We’re just doing our jobs. We’ve never seen anything like this. Well, hmm, come to think, except when Carleton did almost exactly the same thing to the Lakehead Thunderwolves in the 2013 final, where they won by 50. “But this wasn’t Lakehead!” exclaimed a wide-eyed basketball man and Ravens admirer. “Them being in the finals was a bit of a fluke, but Ottawa is really good!

Not Sunday. The Gee-Gees were devastated. I couldn’t get the lost look on fifth-year post Gabriel Gonthier-Dubue’s face out of my mind; Johnny B wore a haunting mask of stunned sorrow. (And they had to stand there for soooooo long! Celebration, a zillion photos, interviews, all this before the formal announcements of the Players of the Game, the tournament MVP and All-Stars, before the GGs bowed their heads to receive a silver medal that they won’t appreciate for years, and before they watched the Carleton Ravens, for the second straight year, accept the gold that they seem to win so routinely now. 11 W.P. McGee trophies in 13 years constitutes a habit, and for the rest of the Canadian university basketball hopefuls, it’s become an utterly intimidating one. Don’t forget, they lost narrowly in the national semis in those other two years! Meanwhile, UOttawa has never won gold. And they had to stand at least 15 minutes and watch Those Guys.) They stood there SO LONG.

It’s too much to ask. (Maybe, too, it’s too much to ask of you to keep reading. This thing hits nearly 3000 words — also more photos to come! — but count me fascinated. And you? ) Still, the Gee-Gees were dignified, patient, and it must be said that the Ravens conduct themselves with restraint and class when they win. It’s just that a lot of on-court stuff – media-driven, corporatist – happens that should be done after the medals have been awarded. Show a little kindness to the vanquished, organizers! Get them their medals, and get them the hell off the floor! It’s sportsmanship and honour, I get and love that. It’s like that most noble tradition in North American pro sport, the handshake line after the final Stanley Cup game, where furious combatants pay tangible respects to each other.

[The problem there is that the Cup celebrations, once a one-minute frenzy of congratulations and bear hugs while the losers leaned on their sticks and sighed, now forces the defeated to stand and wait much longer. (And they happen in friggin’ June.) I’ve seen good captains cut it short out of respect for their opponents, allowing them to get off the ice and out of view, but often they can’t do it because of the media’s insistence on immediate and incessant interviews. It’s a cruel punishment heaped on the pain of defeat, and there’s no need for it. There’s plenty of time for jumping up and down and hugging and telling the world that it feels great, I don’t know what to say, we worked all year, what a great group of guys… Wild hockey-related digression ends. It’s hard, sometimes, being a Canadian.]

How did this happen? The Gee-Gees were hugely energetic off the opening tip. Their defence was manic. They had a half-dozen offensive rebounds in the first four minutes. Mehdi Tihani was a furious ball of hustle against the team for whom he’d red-shirted in his first university year. The intensity was visible, visceral, and it was clear that UOttawa was ready to throw everything at the Ravens, who got no easy shots. And yet: after four minutes, it was still 11-4 Carleton. Their low-scoring post player, Jean Pierre-Charles, had confidently stroked a three, since the Gee-Gees had left him open. I thought, Uh-oh. So, too, I guess, the passel of former Gee-Gees players in the row behind me were thinking the same thing. “Come on, get in!” they implored every Ottawa shot. They exploded in fury when two-time CIS Defensive Player of the Year, Thomas Scrubb, swept a bouncing Ottawa shot off the rim; it’s a goaltending violation in high school ball, the NCAA, the NBA, and in the CIS when these men played, but it’s not according to the FIBA rules used now.“Aw, shit, that gets me every time!” said Greg Sam, two seats to my left. The score was 15-10 at quarter time, and the tournament to that point had seen nothing resembling the defensive energy and maniacal focus showed by these two intra-city rivals, ranked one and two nationally all year after having met in the 2014 final at home in Ottawa.

Phil drives the GGs (nuts). Johnny B and Agada defend. (photo from CanadaWestHoops)

Phil drives the GGs (nuts). Johnny B and Agada defend. (photo from CanadaWestHoops)

Carleton started the second quarter on a 7-0 run. Phil Scrubb, one year younger than brother Tommy, and an unprecedented three times the National Player of the Year, was brilliant. Johnny Berhanemeskel, who supplanted Phil this year for Ontario and national honours, was invisible, draped as he was in the 6’4” shadow of the Ravens’ muscular Connor Wood, who was also beginning to assert himself offensively. The Gee-Gees alumni muttered darkly as the lead stretched to 34-14. Sam leaned back to his buddies, cocked an eyebrow, and quietly said, “I told you.” After a timeout, though, the garnet ‘n’ grey had a 7-0 run of their own to get it to 13, but no farther; it was 38-23 at half. “Look at the body language!” hissed one of the Gee-Gees’ big brothers. Anyone who knows sport from the inside could see it: being 15 points down at half-time is not the end of the world, but it looked and felt like it. UOttawa had played with tremendous passion and desperate fire, and it hadn’t worked. They were a little lucky not to be down by more.

Two “knights” from Medieval Times entertained the crowd with their choreographed swordplay – what amounted to a live commercial for their amusement business – and one was drastically faux-killed at the end, which was a little ominous. I had my coach-hat on, though, thinking: How do you fight, as player and as Coach Derouin, the feeling of inevitability, the creeping helplessness in the face of Carleton’s domination? Sure, everyone knew the Gee-Gees had beaten the Ravens twice in the last two seasons after a long string of defeats that had seemed like an eternal destiny, but not when it mattered. (Derouin had confessed, in a startlingly frank pre-playoff interview, to a profound so-what-do-we-do-NOW? feeling after his charges beat the Ravens in a regular season match in January.) And it had to be daunting, to have played with such ferocity early and have it not matter because Phil, already with 16 points, and Tommy were playing like that.

“Coach Jimmeh” had no halftime magic Sunday, and his players were about to be absolutely stampeded. Wood hit a three on Carleton’s first possession. Then another. Then faked the three and hit a pullup jumpshot. Victor Raso drilled a three. Tommy nailed a short jumper and was fouled. “Fuck OFF!” yelled one of my seatmates with incredulous dismay. Suddenly, unbelievably, it was 61-27 after a 23-4 Ravens blitz in the first five minutes. I’d seen Carleton and the NCAA’s famous Memphis Tigers play last August, and watched the Ravens “peck the Tigers into slump-shouldered helplessness”. If the UO alums thought the body language was disturbing in the first half, they weren’t at all ready to see the vivid but silent wails of discouragement coming from their little brothers now. It was hard to watch, actually, even as a fan of the Carleton program and its astounding coach Dave Smart, especially sitting among guys who were proud of their team’s rise but gut-punched by this terribly hard (but maybe not entirely unforeseen) fall.

At 70-38 – let me take this moment to remind myself and you that this was the Freakin’ National Championship Game and the matchup that every disinterested CIS fan had wanted – James Derouin was given his second technical foul of the game for unsolicited advice to the officials. Gone. Out of the game. Mostly, he cuts a languid, composed figure on the sidelines, but must have lost his control on at least two occasions. I was worried that he was going to refuse to go and cause an even more shameful scene, as he stood near the midcourt line for a painfully long time before departing. (The question for any coach was: did he want out of there? Or was he just so frustrated that he couldn’t zip his lip? Or, maybe, did the referee have a quick ‘T’ trigger in such an important game?) (And in the heart of many a Carleton fan was this bitterly triumphant mutter: Your CIS Coach of the Year, everybody!)

Seniors Night in the Nest, 2015. Admiration all 'round. Make no mistake: this is family, not just ranting. "I love the guy," says Victor Raso. "Best two years of my life." (Ottawa Citizen photo)

Seniors Night in the Nest, 2015. Admiration all ’round. Make no mistake: this is family, not just ranting. “I love the guy,” says Victor Raso. “Best two years of my life.” (Ottawa Citizen photo)

My focus turned to Dave Smart. At that same 70-38, one of his most frequently whiplashed players, Guillaume Boucard, rangy and quick but error-prone, made a turnover. His coach was livid. He had fiery words for Phil Scrubb, too, just before he shot the technical free throw. Smart wasn’t backing off the accelerator at all. Unbelievable, and yet entirely familiar for those of us who’ve watched the Ravens over the years. He Just. Doesn’t. Stop. When would his foot come off the gas?

The start of the fourth was similarly grim for supporters of the sudden-underdog (under-ponies?) (or for those who like their basketball games close): Phil hit a wide-open three, and was foolishly fouled by a late-arriving Mike L’Africain. The rare four-point play was Phil’s second of this tournament, only one marker of the transcendence of his play across the last three games of his unmatched CIS career. (Don’t worry, I’ll give you the statistics. As young jocks say now, those numbers are just STUPID. Or is that “sick“?). Another Connor Wood trey – and the CIS has two more years of this guy to face – brought the unbelievable tally to 84-40 with 6 minutes to play, without a sign of Smart substituting beyond his basic 8-man rotation. He was still pressing for perfection. Mind you, Gee-Gees lead assistant Justin Serresse hadn’t gone to his bench, either. The Ravens were still doubling their main Canadian competition at 86-43, and at just under three minutes the Carleton youth brigade reported to the scorer’s table. And couldn’t get on the court because there were no whistles or baskets until 1:05 remained.

Zeroes finally appeared on the clock, but the numbers 93-46 still burned there and will continue to sear the UOttawa basketball faithful for years to come, I suspect. It wasn’t 50, but it was a doubling. About three dozen red-clad Carleton students dodged a feeble security cordon to rush the floor (how the American student bodies would laugh: that’s ALL? Yup, 40 kids, tops), but not to mob the players. They kneeled, and repeatedly kow-towed to the celebrating pack of Ravens in the we are not worthy pantomime of “Wayne’s World” worship. Funny. Also true: the sedate and thin crowds at Carleton home games, as often as not with no very obvious student section at all, do not come close to matching what the sustained competitive brilliance of the Smart kind deserves. It drives Carleton insiders nuts: “I go to home games sometimes and I think that a bunch of senior citizens have been bussed in for rec night!” one said. Dave Smart appears not to care in the least.

Gabriel Gonthier-Dubue, still looking bereaved, had to come forward and receive his Gee-Gees Player of the Game gift bag. Phil Scrubb, whose name won’t be on the Mike Moser trophy but who is obviously the CIS’s Best Man, was being interviewed on TV; for at least the second time, another Raven (the ever-sprightly Gavin Resch, this time) came forward to receive the gift bag (and, again, had to stand and grin and pretend to be a Scrubb for the cameras, alongside the Ryerson athletic director; goofy!). Three Ravens were tournament all-stars: Scrubb, Scrubb and Wood were joined by the Gee-Gees’ Caleb Agada (clearly their best man on the weekend) and the Ryerson Rams’ Adika Peter-McNeilly. Phil Scrubb, no surprise, was the Jack Donohue trophy-winner as tournament MVP.

You Got SCRUBBed! the CU Redzone kids would howl and point after big plays by Tommy or Phil. The whole tournament did. In five years, they’ve lost exactly five games, and none in the Final8. Let’s start with Thomas, whom Dave Smart had praised at Seniors Night at the Ravens Nest as “plain and simple, smarter than everybody else”, a straight-A student in Neurosciences, if you can believe it, and now a Master’s scholar who over the five years at Carleton “improved more than any player we’ve ever had”. The elder Scrubb was a red-shirt in his freshman year, unable to earn a roster spot. When I finally got to see him play in his second year, he was weak, awkward and marginally effective; brilliant basketball mind that I am, and having seen enough of his just-arrived younger brother, I thought, Oh, I get it now. Dave recruited big brother just to get Philip. Ha. Tommy is one of the most fascinating players I’ve ever seen. He still looks a bit awkward at times, and yet he’s incredibly effective as a scorer, passer, rebounder and defender, twice selected the National Defensive Player of the Year in the CIS. Oh, and he played for Canada’s National Team last summer. Tommy’s a quirky, intelligent, hyper-efficient and stealth-athletic force; at times this season, I began to wonder if he might just be a better pro than his more-heralded younger brother.

And then there’s Phil. So: first, he was CIS Rookie of the Year. Teammate Tyson Hinz, then in his 3rd year, won the Moser that season, and his own chance at multiple Player of the Year trophies was extinguished once Phil was a sophomore. That year, and the following two, he was named the CIS’s best, and his swan song emphatically stated — though neither he nor Smart ever said a word — that the CIS goofed in choosing Johnny B, as fine a player and person as he is. Phil Scrubb will be at an NBA training camp next summer. In three games this CIS Final8 weekend, Scrubb averaged 29.3 points, 8.3 assists, and 4.3 rebounds. He shot 61% from the field, and 64% from behind the three-point line. Ridiculous.

Game 1: Phil goes 6/8  from three in the first half, scores 29, ends with 31 in a short shift. Tommy had 18 points and 9 rebounds, and Connor Wood 11.  Johnny B struggled in his quarterfinal, but still managed 19. (Agada was actually the man o’ the match in their narrow overtime escape, and the abashed and humble JB tried to give him his gift goodies as Player of the Game.)

G2: 29 points, 8 rebs and 13 assists (!) for Phil. Tommy was quieter against the tall Victoria front line, but still had 7 points, 12 boards, and 3 assists. Wood added 10. Johnny B had 20 against Ryerson in their semifinal, and made some sweet deliveries, especially to their PoG Vikas Gill.

G3: Phil scored 28 with 10 assists in the massacre, while Tommy nearly triple-doubled with 20 points, 12 rebounds and 7 assists. (Connor Wood continued his coming-out party (no sexual innuendo intended or permissible) with 21 points/4 boards/2 helpers of his own.) Johnny Berhanemeskel had a painful night that I vainly hope he’ll get over someday: he went 1-10 and scored 6 points. The Carleton D was as astonishing as its O.

Tastes good! Cam Smythe to the left, two watch-out freshmen, then Raso, Scrubb and Resch, right. The beat goes on. (from GoRavens.ca)

Tastes good! Cam Smythe to the left, two watch-out freshmen, then Raso, PScrubb and Resch, right. The beat goes on. (from GoRavens.ca)

Amazing happened at the Mattamy Centre. It was a fine Final 8, and the championship game was a stunner. A few more numbers: the Ravens shot 56% from the floor and 52% from 3-point range! But now the Scrubbs are gone, and so is coach-on-the-floor and deadeye shooter Victor Raso. Whew! The CIS is breathing a huge sigh of relief. There’s no way the Ravens will be a factor next year. Well, you’d think so, but I didn’t hear a word of that. Next week, they’ll start their off-season workouts and maintain their usual high academic standards. (These are not the NCAA’s “student athletes”.) Tommy and Phil will be pros next year, yes, and even The Association is not out of the question. Besides Wood and Pierre-Charles and the inextinguishable Gavin Resch (an incredibly improved point guard), the Ravens had three talented freshmen that couldn’t earn anything but mop-up playing time at the end of CU’s many blowouts, and in Cameron Smythe, have a 6’11” sophomore forward with sweet hands who battled for every rotation minute this year but is only getting stronger.

And I couldn’t help but notice a young man in the gold-medal receiving line, a transfer from York named Ryan Ejim. He’s an experienced and accomplished CIS player, and he’ll be scrapping for minutes in the Ravens rotation next year as well. (His brother Melvin was NCAA Big Twelve Player of the Year in 2014, and the little brother has game, too.) And this just in: a little Raven whispered to me that next year’s recruiting class is one of the best that Dave Smart has ever had…

Comments (2)

  1. Ben Howden

    As a sometime admirer of ruthlessness, I admire the ruthlessness of Smart and the Ravens. Stone cold.

    • I still think about it. Why not pull the competitive chute a tad earlier? Was it unadulterated “we’ll show you guys who’s best”? Was he looking to send a message beyond this game and year? (“You came close this year and last. You even got us a couple of times. But you’ll *never* match us.”) Or, maybe it was simply that this group, especially the Scrubbs plus fellow senior Victor Raso, would never play together again? They sat a lot of second halves this year when games were effectively over long before their time, and so why cut them off in their finale when the basketball they’re playing is so *fine* that even the Ravens — and not just their spoiled supporters — are showing some joy? Or how ’bout this: when you’re that close to basketball perfection, and this is your perpetual goal, how do you just STOP? It was like an extended series of encores. Not that a score-centric audience, and certainly not the glumly devastated Gee-Gees, really asked for it, but there also had to be something of take a good look, people, at how good these guys can be. Or this: I’m not done with this group yet. We can still be better… Smart would scoff at those around me who said, “C’mon, get the rookies in their, give ’em a taste of championship ball!” Mop-up time in a 40-point game is no taste of pressure, not nearly what next fall’s practices will be when Vic and Phil and Tommy are gone and the weight of leadership they bore is now distributed on all the guys that thought Smart was tough on them *this* year…

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