The Year of the Ram: Nearly, in Toronto

Here I continue in my micro-odyssey: to see all 11 games at the CIS Final 8 men’s basketball championships, to understand anything and everything about them, and to write it all up without losing subscribers or being fined by the Interwebs. (I’ve gotta be getting close to being long overdue. As opposed to just, um, sorta like, ya know, betterlatethanneverrightamIrightImsureImright. You can find Take One and Take Two with the easiest of clicks.

Listen, you may not know yet what happened in the Northern Territories of Hoopdom yesterday. The grand old W.P. McGee Trophy, first awarded in 1963 for the championship of Canadian university men’s basketball, was cradled and pumped toward the grey ceiling of the old Maple Leaf Gardens yesterday at about 5:30 pm. It was an amazing title game, and not incidentally the seasonal rubber match between a pair of Canadian hoops juggernauts and crosstown rivals: the Carleton Ravens and the Ottawa Gee-Gees.

Home of the Rams (and the ghost of Tim Horton).

Home of the Rams (and the ghost of Tim Horton).

However, I know you don’t want to read about that. Not yet, because you haven’t yet read’s take on Saturday night’s semifinals at the Mattamy Centre. (Am I right? I’m sure I’m right.) So I’ll get to that right quick, but yesterday’s heavyweight hoops slugfest? Sheesh, it was unbelievable, I mean, nobody saw it coming, not really, not like that, but I won’t spoil it for you. (Good thing that there isn’t some mechanism for quickly finding out facts on any given event or idea! Gosh, then you’d have your CIS Final 8 information out of sequence, the context and appreciation of the tournament’s Large Vista would be lost, and so would you be. Dear reader, I won’t stand or sit for it!) Oh, don’t worry, I WILL get to that stunning game – still reeling, I am, to think that they could have won over a team that many considered the favourite for a big chunk of the 2014-15 season, and holy cow! With such a devastating, heart-wrenching conclusion! But first I want to think and write about Saturday night, since: a) I wrote lots of semi-comprehensible notes, and b) the semifinals featured some of the maddest college hoop March-ing you’d ever want to see, and c) because Sir Henk of the Southlands has asked that it be so. (So has King Karl. There may be others. You may be among them. So here!)

The Raptor was in the House That Conn Smythe Built

Zach Lowe recently chastised an NBA player for shoving the Raptor -- he's recovering from a torn Achilles!

Zach Lowe recently chastised an NBA player for shoving the Raptor — he’s recovering from a torn Achilles!

(and Ryerson U and a few corporate giants reconfigured). Grantland basketball writer Zach Lowe is a fan, and it’s easy to see why: even in a mascot support role, he’s amusing and watchable. (Handstand pushups at centre court got my attention right away. He’s an athletic little lizard!) There were darkouts and spotlights for the pregame introductions, which CIS players don’t see a lot of. The place was full and the energy high, in contrast to the consolation final played earlier Saturday. What a fine thing for these skilled and hardworking teams, to have a taste of real interest. Heck, it was even on live national TV! This is news in Canada still, frustratingly, as there’s still lots of room on the basketball bandwagon, especially when there are Actual Student-Athletes involved.

Semifinal One. (Game One, Final Four Saturday, if you prefer.) UVic Vikings’ coach Craig Beaucamp later said, “The thing Carleton does better than anybody in the country is to come out of the gate running.” They’re like the NBA Spurs in this way, who at their best defy the basketball “wisdom” that “games are won in the fourth quarter”. For the Ravens, it’s always “crunch time”, and they were up 10-2 after a few minutes, 15-5 by the mid-quarter TV timeout, and 27-15 as the first quarter ended. Chris McLaughlin, the Vikes’ 6’10” first-team All-Canadian, had already been met at the rim and had his two-fisted jam rejected by the Ravens’ uber-defender Thomas Scrubb. The westerners didn’t wilt, though, and warmup dunkmeister Grant Sitton proved he wasn’t just a pre-game show, using his length to not only strip the unstrippable point guard, Phil Scrubb, but also to launch deadeye threes over the Carleton defenders. The Ravens still stretched their lead, proving that they’re more than Two Scrubbs and Some Scrubs, and with scoring from post Jean Pierre-Charles and gunner Victor Raso, the lead was 48-32 at half.

The Ravens did it again after the break, roaring out of the locker room with another opening 10-2 run in the first two and half minutes. Eight points were Phil’s, and big brother Tommy, a wing player forced to play post for an undersized CU team, had blocked shots on consecutive possessions. Uh-oh. The Vikes are dead. Except that they weren’t. The Raven shooting went cold, and Marcus Tibbs, UVic’s darting point guard, was brilliant after Beaucamp’s timeout. It was still a 67-50 spread to end the third, but Tibbs began the fourth quarter with a hard-driving layup and one, and then a gorgeous feed to Sitton for a trey, and suddenly they were only down 11. Every time the Ravens threatened to fly away, Tibbs had a brave and desperate snare. Pierre-Charles denied Sitton for a second spectacular Ravens block of a dunk attempt, but nothing seemed to dampen the Vikes’ resolve or scramble their well-coached brains. (Beaucamp, needing to send CU to the line to stop the clock late, did something I hadn’t seen before with less than a minute to go. He substituted for all five – I thought, wow, a little early to dump, it’s only 11 points – but he hadn’t stopped working. The subs committed three rapid-fire fouls to get over the bonus limit and put the Ravens on the free-throw line, and then back came the best.

Scrubb (past Sitton, Thiel, over McLaughlin). His line? 29 pts, 13 assists, 8 rebounds. I call him Moser4. (Ottawa Citizen photo)

Scrubb (past Sitton, Thiel, over McLaughlin). His line? 29 points, 13 assists, 8 rebounds. I call him Moser4. (Ottawa Citizen photo)

The Victoria Vikes never quite put the match’s outcome in doubt, but they outplayed the Ravens for a good part of the second half, and made the RedZone student section nervous. The Vikes aren’t the dynasty they were in the 1980s, when they did what even Dave Smart and Carleton have been unable to duplicate: seven straight W.P. McGees. They’re good, though, a Top 5 program in Canada, and they were eminently respectable in finally succumbing 83-74. Beaucamp is really good, his team played tough, and Tibbs was tremendous in defeat.

Semi the Second. The Mattamy Centre was jammed even tighter, and the decibels distinctly higher, as the Ryerson Rams, tournament hosts and hometown darlings, faced the Ottawa Gee-Gees. For the second time, the Ottawa club (ranked two most of the season when they weren’t on top, while the Rams were steadily third in the national coaches’ polls) had beaten Ryerson to take Ontario bronze the week before, but that had been on their hardwood, their odd and tiny gym. These are two teams that love to run and gun. The pace was fast, the building was loud, and I was paying ferocious attention, but didn’t make a single note until scribbling the first-quarter score, 26-25 Gee-Gees. (I blame the game. I also blame King Karl, who graciously let me sit with him, and whose conversation was more fun than scribbling.)

Adika Peter-McNeilly, an undersung Ryerson wing, continued to impress me with his headsy play and killer shooting stroke as the Rams opened up with a 5-0 run, but he made a foolish foul, his 3rd, which hamstrung his coach, Roy Rana. I found myself pulling for the Toronto team, who seemed a little, hmm, classier and more together as the Gee-Gees were out of synch after a strong start to the game. (Foreshadowing. I see it now.) Ottawa was cold, especially their post Gabriel Gonthier-Dubue (voted Best Ponytail by every co-ed in garnet’n’grey), and the Rams led 45-36 at halftime. What would Ottawa’s James Derouin say to wake up his sleepy charges?

GG Gonthier-Dubue, a headless horse/man, and Ram Aaron Best in full battle. ( photo)

GG Gonthier-Dubue, a headless horse/man, and Ram Aaron Best in full battle. ( photo)

It must have worked. The change was quick, as it had been in the first round against Bishop’s. National Player of the Year Johnny Berhanemeskel (who’d stopped Phil Scrubb’s unprecedented streak of three Mike Moser trophies, to considerable carping by the Carleton faithful) was hunting for his shot more aggressively, but still sweetly finding the open man. Lumbering forward Vikas Gill was nailing three-pointers. In the midst of the quarter three frenzy was King Karl’s Turning Point of the Game: Ryerson flyer Aaron Best, along with Jamahl Jones the heart of the Rams’ turnaround during their stellar five-year careers, drove for a crowd-revving fastbreak dunk and was denied. By the rim. (Lay that ball in, little man!) Midway through the 3rd, it was the once-derided “Rye High” still in the lead, but only by 1. Ottawa’s Clydesdale, Vikas Gill, kept on stroking, including one absolute “how hot am I, anyway?” shot from six feet beyond the arc. Suddenly, it was Ryerson that looked unsettled, Rams that were chucking premature and desperate shots. And clanking them. Still, though, they managed to keep their composure enough to avoid the blowout, and Gill committed his fourth foul for an early sitdown. The quarter ended with Ryerson down 4, but it could’ve been more.

In Canadian Interuniversity Sport (and in Ottawa), the perennial question.

In Canadian Interuniversity Sport (and in Ottawa), the perennial question. Blue-bodied Rams were students of the game.

And then Peter-McNeilly got his fourth, on a bad reach with the score 65-59 Gee-Gees. He sat down briefly, and his mates battled furiously enough that, on his return, his long three tied the score at 67 and brought the crowd to its feet. The next play sat them – and him – disconsolately back down, as he drew his fifth foul trying to draw an offensive charge on an O-Train called Caleb Agada. I’ve been impressed by Peter-McNeilly’s quiet efficiency, but he got caught trying to make too many Big Plays. Enter Johnny B, scoring the next four points for Ottawa, and mercurial point guard Mike L’Africain (interestingly, a white kid) was on his best behaviour, netting a huge three that put the Gee-Gees up 7 with a minute left. Ryerson came unglued in the absence of P-M. (Hmm. This would make him their “glue guy”, the man who holds everybody else together, though Jones is the star.) There was no super-heroic hometown magic, and the final score was 84-75.

It’s odd to think of Ottawa as a savvier Goliath and the Toronto school as the Little David Who (Nearly) Could — to mash some metaphor — as the country upstart who didn’t lose, he just ran out of time (and stones), but that’s how it was. The Rams were the biggest joke in CIS sports, winning one game in the two seasons before Roy Rana, a hugely successful Toronto high school coach, decided to take on the Ryerson basketball makeover. Hosting this tournament, in the year when some of the Toronto schoolboy stars he’d convinced to stay home were in their final season, was supposed to be capped with a Big City Boys Make (Canadian) Good, at least with a berth in the National Final. But even reaching this semifinal game represented uncharted territory for the Rams, and the Big Smoke Cinderella ran smack into midnight about 90 minutes early.

Bronze Medal Game: So now I’m really cheating, timewise. (Confession: I was polishing up my consolation-side accounts during this game.) By 11:30 the next morning, championship Sunday, the Rams had to turn around and play for bronze. While the consolation round has been a fixture at CIS Final 8’s forever, the 3rd-place game hadn’t been played in awhile. I’m much more in favour of this game than of having first-round losers try to get excited about fifth place, about being “first of the worst”.

It was evident that the teams felt the same way, especially the Rams. Rana had declared, amid the disappointment of late Saturday night, that his men would take their best shot at a medal. They did. Their fans didn’t; by my guess, perhaps 20% of the previous night’s volume of Rye guys (and gals) were back to cheer, comfort, encourage and console their momentary heroes. The old saying: We’re with you, win or win in overtime. My chicken and egg query was this: were coaches Rana and Beaucamp more active and interested than consolation coaches because they were in a medal game, or were they in a medal game because they coach no matter what? (Heck, Rana was even energetic enough – or was that petulance? – to draw a technical foul for ref-baiting.)

Whichever is the case, this was a far better ballgame than the “consy” final had been, and perhaps that’s no surprise. Ryerson was up 19-15 at quarter-time, and it was still tight at the half, but ultimately the Rams were not only a better team but, I think, a more motivated one, and won going away, 82-68. The number of TV cameras catching the (muted, relieved, but happy) celebration of Ryerson’s win, and hovering over ever Ram’s reception of his bronze medal, was a reminder that Toronto is the centre of the Canadian media universe. Rana’s ambitious daydream of a national championship for a Toronto school – which has never happened in the modern era, and the mere suggestion of which would have brought guffaws as recently as three years ago – was not realized. It was great news, though, and important to the CIS, to have Ryerson as the focus of a CIS Final 8.

Toronto Is Basketball, proclaimed banners, thunderstix and hashtags, a bold statement considering that Toronto had never hosted, let alone won, a CIS Final 8 tournament. It was a good show this year in Toronto, though. Not only was the little red dinosaur there, but some Actual Raptors took in some games. And while the Ryerson Rams were guaranteed a spot as hosts, don’t be mistaken: this was the consensus third-best team in Canada all year, and they proved that they belonged.

Baseline view, great venue.

Baseline view, great venue.

Two questions: will Rana stick around to continue the Ryerson renaissance? There is a quiet rumour of him departing for pro pastures. Here’s the second. Which will come first: a Toronto school winning a CIS title, or the Raptors topping the NBA?   


Just thought of a third: can you stand to wait for my breathtaking revelation of the National Champion? Don’t trust those Internet twits and headlines: come back here, a source you can trust, for all the Capital hoops news that fits. POY* Johnny Berhanemeskel? COY* James Derouin? Or would you rather believe in Darth Smart and his son, Luke Scrubbwalker?

*These are acronymys (U.S. ones, at that), not adjectives.
Player and Coach of the Year.

Comment (1)

  1. Buck

    I can hardly wait to find out!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *