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,

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? )

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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

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Ten for Twelve. Ravens Win! (Well, *I* Felt Something.)

I’ll regret this later in the day, but only with a bleary, weary grin and a bemused shake of the skull. I get a little hoops-deprived here in China, but not in these wee hours. It’s ten to five in the morning, and my adopted hometown team has just done the ridiculous.

To update last week’s Jordan Conn article on Grantland: “If a team wins TEN out of 12 national championships in Canada, does it make any noise? Meet the Carleton University Ravens.” Well, the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees (just Google it) did, and fought madly and well, but the dynasty stands as the Ravens rolled on, 79-67. Did it make any noise? Well, just north of 7000 fans in the home of the NHL’s Ottawa Senators – yup, for all you Murricans reading, our national college hoops classic drew over 10,000 empty seats with the two local unis in it – made a fine effort. Sometimes the play-by-play guys were synchronized with the three cameras operating, and for a second-tier pro and a one-weekend-a-year ex-coach colour guy, the SportsNet 360 team did a fine job.

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Of Grantland and Conn and Backwoods Basketball

It’s an early Friday evening, down-home time. If I was in Ottawa, I’d have spent hours by now in a cavernous puck pagoda – named for reasons corporate after Canada’s iconic purveyor of duct tape, snow shovels, lawn mowers and power saws – and I and a few thousand echoing others would know two of the four teams in the only-slightly-mad northern university basketball version of the Final Four. It’s the Canadian Interuniversity Sport men’s basketball tournament, and you can’t get there from here in Dalian, China.

The expected collision in the Canadian final: Carleton Ravens collide, in the big house, with their crosstown rivals from OttawaU.

The March Madness of the American tournament – featuring 64 teams (once the play-in games are out of the way) to our eight finalists – is yet to come, and I’m only slightly crazed by the distance I feel. Detachment doesn’t come easy, but it comes, friends, it comes, often whether we want it or not. When I’m in Canada, I’m an Ottawa man, have been since 2002. I’m a long-time nutter of a basketball coach, and I knew Carleton University’s Amazing Dave before he was the least-known ruler of Canadian sport, the guy whose teams at a previously mediocre Ottawa school have won nine national championships in the last eleven years. It’s a dynasty such as we don’t see in sports anymore, and even most maple leafs don’t know about him or the furiously good teams he produces, year after decade. The most shocking upset, possibly, of this year’s CIS Final 8 happened before the tourney began, when the neighbouring University of Ottawa Gee-Gees were given the number one seed after a late comeback storm and a buzzer-beater in the (almost meaningless) Ontario final gave them a one-point win over Carleton’s Ravens, their first domestic loss in nearly two years.

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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.