CIS Halifax: Day 2

This is stale-dated, unfortunately; I wasn’t able to post directly from Halifax, but here are my notes on Day 2 (Saturday’s semifinal play) of the Canadian Interuniversity Sport men’s basketball championships.

Games 5 & 6 (Consolation Semifinals): The tournament’s top two seeds, Concordia and BC, overcame their first-round disappointments to advance on the Consolation side of the draw. Some consolation. It’s another distinguishing feature of the Canuck national final that there even IS a chance for first-round losers to play again; it is universally win-or-go-home in the National Collegiate Athletic Association, where even the third-place game in the Final Four was done away with 35 years ago. It’s hard for CIS athletes – especially those who genuinely believed that they were in the championship hunt – to commit mentally to the consolation round, but the competitive jones kicks in sooner or later as long as the game doesn’t get away from them early. For the administrators, it is simpler: Look, if we’re travelling all that way, we have to get at least two games. It’s money, but I’m not sure it makes even economic sense to play a game that nobody much wants to play or watch. At development levels, of course there has to be the chance to play the extra games, but with elite athletes? I don’t see the point, really. I must be missing something.

That having been said, top-seed Concordia pulled away from a lethargic Windsor team that was never really in it. Down 20 midway through the first period, the Lancers made a minor comeback in the second but never made it interesting. Yesterday’s doubts were confirmed: Windsor’s Wilson Cup home-court win over Carleton, which had little bearing on seeding for the Final 8, was their national championship, emotionally. The Stingers’ Patrick Perrotte, after a tough game one, was dominant inside against the Lancers. He’s an odd-looking player, a “Mister 5 by 5” who plays the post at a wide-bodied 6’1”. You’d never pick him out of a police lineup as a basketball player – he looks more like the guy who owns (and is the bouncer for) the slightly seedy bar downtown – but he’s powerful, skilled, very intelligent and has remarkably nimble feet for a man of his heft. Perrotte’s running mate, Benjamin Sormonte, also shot the lights out.

In the second consolation game, a casual UBC team allowed an Acadia club, scarlet from their 48-point spanking by Carleton the night before, to recover some pride. It seemed inevitable, though, that the Thunderbirds — maybe the most talented crew in the country — came back from a large early deficit to win fairly comfortably. Casey Archibald was a revelation, seemingly able to dial up a graceful offensive sally whenever it was needed. What a beautiful jumpshot. “How is this guy not on the national team?” was a conversation running through my section; he wouldn’t dunk on international competition as he does here, but he’s a 6’4″ guard who can shoot the long bomb and the pull-up mid-range shot. At this level, he takes over when he feels like it, and notched another 30-point effort. At the same time, the other thread running through the knowledgeable fans in the Carleton section was that he “couldn’t play for us”. Too soft? Not committed to defence? I’m not sure what was meant by that, other than Ravens Pride, but it was great to see him play after all that I’ve read. He’s the real deal, and what a great career, despite the T-Birds’ chronic failures at the Nationals.

Game 7 (Championship Semifinal): Brandon v. Saint Mary’s. After the Huskies upset Concordia in the opener, this game was exhibit B of the competitive advantage that the small Atlantic University Sport conference has had by virtue of hosting the Nationals for the past 24 years. Three times, for example, their conference runner-up has qualified as the 8th-seeded  host school and knocked off the tournament number one in the first round. It’s home cooking, baby, though not of the refereeing variety, at least not directly. But they’ve played at the Metro Centre frequently, which is a very different venue from the campus gyms that nearly all CIS games are played in, and Halifax comes out in force to yell for the Maritime teams. Here, the Huskies were decidedly outmanned against the Bobcats, but Brandon failed to put the finish on their 17-point second-half lead, and the loud crowd helped Saint Mary’s to come within three in a raucous run to the buzzer. When only one Atlantic school gets an automatic bid to Nationals over the next three years — they’re moving to Ottawa after their long Halifax engagement — things will be very different for the east-coast schools. Can AUS teams have anywhere near the success they’ve had during the Halifax years? One thing they won’t have: scoreboard “rally monkeys” bouncing and imploring the crowd to MAKE NOISE for Saint Mary’s. It clearly rattled the Bobcats, and gave renewed energy to a very tired group of Huskies.

Game 8 (Championship Semifinal): Ottawa v. Carleton. Round Four of the “Canal War” between these Capital rivals had the Carleton fans worried. OU gets up for the Ravens as they do for nobody else, and they had won two of the three tense struggles they’d had. I guessed that this would not be the case when it came to the Nationals, and my prediction of a relatively easy 13-point Carleton win suffered only from being too tentative. Carleton ground down a very game Ottawa team, which knew early in the second half that there were no more miracles in their toolkit. The Ravens were nearly as dominant, at times, as they had been in crushing Acadia in the first round. The lead got near 30, and the final spread was a startling 22 points. For those of you counting these things, that made for a 70-point margin of victory in Carleton’s first two games. If people wanted to see them go down, last year was the time to get them, when second team All-Canadian Aaron Doornekamp was out with a broken ankle. Astonishingly, the Ravens won anyway last year, and I can’t see anybody getting them now. They are SO hard to play against.

CIS: Finally in Halifax

Friday, March 16

After a long and wonderful drive down with son Ben, once upon a time a basketball player himself, I am in Halifax for the Canadian March Madness, the Canadian Interuniversity Sport men’s basketball championship. It’s been here for the past 24 years, and mainly because I was always coaching (or recovering from it) during the March Break, I’d never made the trip down. It comes to Ottawa, where I live, next year, so I wanted to see it before it left its Maritime home. I was excited.

And upon arrival, road-weary and just a bit late for Friday’s game 1, I had a little spasm of disappointment. My eighth-row seats were beyond the baseline, not foul-line high as I’d been led to believe. The programme had a hasty feel to it, including two photos of players from the favoured Atlantic school which hadn’t even qualified and one mystery photo in which the tiny shorts worn by the player proved it be at least a dozen years out-of-date. Leafing through, the listing of national Players of the Year (the Mike Moser Memorial Trophy) was not only incomplete, but it misspelled the name of Eli Pasquale, one of the greatest players in CIS history. (Never mind the substitution of “it’s” for “its”.) Brandon University, the second seed in the tournament, had incorrect numbers for most of its prime players that had to be revised at tipoff. High school stuff. The Metro Centre is a fine facility that (mostly) doesn’t overwhelm the event — good crowds here are six or seven thousand, and they have occasionally had more than 10,000 — but the mural of the Saint Mary’s Huskies, a local team, winning the ’99 championship also has a distinctly high school feel to it.

My excitement took a temporary dip, but I emerged from Disappointment Mode before long. Here are some other quick impressions from the Friday games, the four quarterfinal matches of this “Final 8” tourney. For game summaries and general tournament information, please go to the CIS tournament website here. What follows are some quick-and-filthy-clean impressions from this basketball vagabond.

Game 1: The number one seed was one I’d questioned, as the Concordia Stingers had run up victories in the small and undistinguished Quebec conference. And Upset Special it was, as the Saint Mary’s Huskies brought tears to the eyes of championship players from their glory days with a last-second victory. Having placed second in an upset-filled Atlantic qualifying tournament, the HomeBoys took full advantage of the friendly crowd and a curiously bland Concordia team. Sophomore Mark McLaughlin hit the winning free throw, and his toughness belies his slender frame. Nice player. Took me awhile to get into the thing, as the atmosphere I’d expected with an AUS team in it didn’t kick in ’til the last several minutes. When it did, it made a difference. Nothing like home cooking, and Stinger All-Canadian Perrotte was held down. Energizing finish.

Game 2: Brandon v. Windsor. Windsor had knocked off Carleton in the Ontario UA final in their own peculiar barn, and they looked good for a awhile in their first trip to the Nationals in ages, but they didn’t guard Brandon’s point Yul Michel well at all. He’s very quick, and was continually allowed to go right to his favourite moves. This one had the feeling of being over before it should’ve been. When Windsor was down 8, it felt like more. And soon it was. Chris Oliver, Windsor’s coach, is known as an uber-dedicated coach, one of the best technical minds that we have. He’s still a young guy, though, and a quiet, reserved presence on the bench. Maybe I just favour a more activist stance from a hoops coach, but I wonder if he has the fire to inspire. I think we’ll see, because I expect Windsor to be good for long while with him. Brandon is a very talented group. They were more than full measure for the win, and maybe Windsor’s big game was last weekend over Carleton, a great win for their young coach. For his players, maybe being here was enough.

Game 3: University of Ottawa v. University of British Columbia. OU, by contrast with Windsor, looked more ‘n ready to be at Nationals. Beating Carleton, the 4-time national champion, twice during league play will do that for you, as will a two-point loss to them in the OUA East final. Their intensity gave them an early jump on UBC, a talented two-seed, and the Gee-Gees have the horses to run with UBC. Their gifted young point guard, Josh Gibson-Bascome, sat for much of the end of the first half with two fouls, which allowed UBC back in to the game. Casey Archibald hit an effortless jumper to bring the Thunderbirds back to within two at half, but Gibson-Bascombe was tremendous in the second, seeming imperious in answering every UBC challenge. He dominated the first six minutes of the second, mainly with surgical passing. In the Carleton-flavoured contingent where I’m sitting, he’s not very popular, but he and his mates were very tough down the stretch, and UBC just didn’t defend well enough. And so continues the T-Bird tradition of national flameouts, and so another all-Ottawa grudge match is set up for the semi-finals.

Game 4: Carleton v. Acadia. Well, I gave away this one, but there wasn’t much surprise here. Acadia was a surprise winner in the Atlantic, maybe the third best team in the AUS, but put together some wins when it counted. Within five minutes, though CU wasn’t shooting well, I smelled blowout. The Ravens’ suffocating, truly obsessive rebounding and defence had the Axemen perched on their frustrated heels. Acadia depended so much on one All-Canadian guard, Paulo Santana (he’s good, but first team A-C? Come on), and ooh-aah shot-blocks and dazzling dimes. One problem: Carleton neither cares for nor allows much of that to happen. Acadia limped to the dressing room with 17 points at half, and Carleton was already up 21 without having too much going smoothly on offence. The second half was even more stunning. Acadia managed 21 points in the half to only lose by 48… The referees hadn’t the heart to keep calling Acadia for all their charges in the second half, or it could’ve been worse. WOW. An unbelievable butt-kicking, and what a great rest for CU’s stars, especialy the chronically gimpy, two-time national Player of the Year, Osvaldo Jeanty. And because of the way CU is built, garbage time doesn’t allow the pressure to relent. The scrubs play hard and insist on rebounding, because that’s The Smart Way. Coach Dave went berserk and called an angry timeout over boxout failures when the lead was 32. And so now they have to beat OU again. I’m predicting an easy time for a change, not of Acadian proportions but more comfortably than they have in the last couple of years. OU’s inexperience at Nationals will show. And CU looked to be on an implacable mission in their Drive for Five. Incredible performance.