Need One Ticket

And on nights like the last one, I’m also smack-tackled by the need for a basketball team to coach. The hot ticket in Ottawa Saturday was for the OUA East championship game between the hometown Carleton Ravens and their cross-town antagonists, the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees. I’d struck out Wednesday when the tickets sold out in a couple of hours, so I lined up early for standing room seats. However, the “Need One” sign that I’d artfully duct-taped to my sleeve got me pretty close to my usual seat, and next to an Ottawa U co-ed who’d hoped for a more interesting date, I’m sure. We were right behind the Ravens’ bench, where I can watch Coach Dave Smart’s perpetual agony at the imperfections of his players (and of the officials, who had a tough game).

It’s great to see that kind of feverish local demand for what the Murricans call “college basketball”, in a game to decide who’d go to the Last Dance, the Canuck version of March Madness. (Mind you, ticket scarcity comes easier when the Ravens’ Nest seats fewer than 2000 people.) Ottawa U finally beat the Ravens in the Smart Era for the first time last year, and this season won both games in tight struggles, the first one before a CIS record crowd of nearly 10,000 at Scotiabank Place. (And yes, I know, the Carolina Tar Heels get more than that for their first open practice of the season. That’s a different world down there.) But the brutally efficient Ravens had still managed first place by being more consistent than the mercurial Gee-Gees; for them, beating Carleton is everything.

It looked like Carleton was going to run off and hide early, but two tight block/charge calls on successive possessions both went against Ravens star Aaron Doornekamp, leaving him with a pair of fouls and causing a potential five-point swing. From there, the Gee-Gees went on an absurd run to take a three-point halftime lead. It was wild, and it got wilder. Neither team shot well, and there were incredible sequences of defensive intensity and offensive nervousness that resulted in almost comically bad misses. The players know each other so well that Doornekamp and Osvaldo Jeanty, Canada’s reigning Player of the Year, were both in check. Similarly, the Gee-Gees silky sophomore, Josh Gibson-Bascombe, had to work very hard for his shots, though he hit several big-time threes.

The biggest shot of the game broke the second half 46-46 tie that had seemed to go on forever, and it came from an unexpected source. With the shot clock running down, substitute defensive stopper Rob Saunders nailed a tough jumper off the dribble, and the Ravens never trailed again. (Saunders is an electrical engineering student, another thing you don’t see among the NCAA Division 1 heavyweights.) The man he replaced, Stu Turnbull, looks more like a light-heavyweight boxer than a basketball player, but muscled his way to 17 points to lead the four-time champion Ravens to the win. And now Carleton goes for its fifth consecutive national title in the Final 8 at Halifax, one of the great (and under-reported) stories in Canadian sport.

Consider these ridiculous facts about the Ravens’ captain, Jeanty: he told his coach as a freshman that his goal was to win five CIS championships – only one remains; his regular season and playoff record in those four-plus years is now 130-8, a winning ratio over 95% (!); he has been the championship game MVP in all four that he has played. Meanwhile, NOT SO SMART! the Gee-Gees fans chanted, but Coach Dave has put together, at a university with no outstanding tradition of basketball excellence, one of the most powerful and unlikely dynasties we’ve ever seen.

I have such admiration for what they do, but I can’t get into the yelling and chanting. (And it was LOUD.) I’m too busy pretending to coach. I’m breaking down Turnbull’s jumpshot during the pre-game. I mutter about Gibson-Bascombe’s decision-making, and tip my hat to his smooth and confident game (and wonder how Ottawa U pried him out of Toronto, and away from a U.S. full-ride scholarship, which must have been available to him). Finish strong, I plead with Doornekamp, who apparently doesn’t hear me. What’s worse, these tired old bones couldn’t sleep afterwards because this fevered old brain is in full game-analysis mode, and planning practices for a non-existent team. Drives me nuts. Love this time of year.

Four Straight Titles — Does Anybody Hear?

If a basketball team wins four straight national championships and hardly anyone notices, does it make a sound? (Does anybody but Mom and Dad meet them at the airport?) Do they go to Disney World? (Or maybe Ray’s Reptiles?) Will they meet the President? (The President, say, of their own university? Okay, this is Canada, and the school is in Ottawa. Maybe the Prime Minister will…Nah.) Wait. I know what happens. Finals are coming; these guys will probably be in class today. (No, Toto, I don’t think we’re talking about the NCAA anymore.)

Yes, the Carleton University Invisible Ravens did it again, and it makes no sense to me. [Editor’s note: they aren’t actually invisible. They just perform amazing feats of tough effort and athletic intelligence and united commitment when hardly anybody’s looking. Yeah, it’s a CIS thing… CIS, not CSI. We’re talkin’ actual people, not TV science cops. Canadian Interuniversity Sport… Yes, they have sports… Yes, they are sometimes on television, if local-access cable counts… No, they’re actually students at the university they play for…Yes, I’m totally serious!)

The Ravens don’t have an actual point guard nor a real post presence. Their most talented player missed the title run with a bum ankle. They’re outsized almost every night. But the Carleton basketball men do have some mysterious and some blatantly obvious qualities that allowed them to win the National Championship again. They’re fiercely competitive, defensively intimidating without either a shot-blocker or on-ball pickpockets, offensively disciplined without being tentative, and they rebound like their erectile function depended on it. Hey, it’s four in a row, kids. Don’t you think some attention should be paid to these guys?

Manny Jean-Marie just doesn’t make a mistake. For my money, he doesn’t make enough; when their gargantuan home winning streak was broken in January, his cautiousness and deference to teammates was exposed. When the Ravens had even less firepower available in the title game, though, he did more than “just being Manny”: his shots were daggers to the UVic Vikings, not just his stops and big boards and every loose ball. When Carleton actually had point guards during his first two seasons, Ryan Bell was an undersized but athletic forward. Yesterday, he convinced me that maybe the Ravens do have a point guard, one who happens to be their best rebounder. Bell took over the game late, and even got some clear-outs called for him when the shooting star had been taken away. (Finally.)

Because it’s not as if that Star, Osvaldo Jeanty, hadn’t already rained enough threes and drained enough clutch off-balance finishes to be named MVP of yesterday’s final. That, my friends, is another Four Straight. The Wizard of Os has been named the Final Ten tournament’s best man twice, including this year, but he has been Mr. Clutch in the national championship game every time he’s played in it. Four for four. (If CIS basketball ever decides to brand itself, they can just modify the Jerry West-inspired NBA logo with an Os silhouette. And unlike the original Mr. Clutch, Osvaldo actually does go to his left.) And next year, he’s gunning to fulfil the goal he set for himself and his team when Dave Smart recruited him: Coach, we’re going to win the CIS five times by the time I’m done. That’s the plan. Even before all those titles, Dave was a confident and spookily focussed guy, but I’ll bet even he had trouble not smirking. Sure, kid. Yeah. The Carleton dynasty. You bet.

Well, now it’s here. This was the year for the rest of the country to get ‘em, especially with star sophomore forward Aaron Doornekamp on the shelf. Their top 8 players, at least, are expected back. Osvaldo, a Business major, has some unfinished biz to take care of. I hope Os takes a day off. The Drive for Five, though, probably started today. Today, this will be a pretty big story in Ottawa, but not for long. I know Carleton students who don’t know much about the Ravens. Listen, I still can get a buzz about big-money athletics, but I must tell you: this is the most interesting ongoing story in my personal Wide World of Sports.