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even qualified and one mystery photo in which the tiny shorts worn by the player proved it be at least a dozen years out-of-date.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.

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