In late November, when the UBC Thunderbirds dropped two Canada West regular season matches to Lethbridge and Calgary, I honestly thought that it was going to be a rebuilding year for last year’s national bronze medalists.
Although they had opened up the 2011-12 campaign with four straight wins against Canada West competition, I came to the conclusion that after that brutal Alberta road trip, that this wouldn’t be the year where the T-Birds claimed that elusive gold at nationals.
After the two-game skid, UBC had a month lay-off and then headed down to Santa Barbara where they split a pair of games against UC Merced and Trinity International University.
Then 2012 happened.
No, not an apocalypse or a terrible John Cusack movie, just the year itself. The calendar change has seen UBC regain the regular season momentum that has been a staple of Thunderbird basketball for the past six seasons.
This past weekend, the Birds chalked up a pair of W’s against the University of Alberta and the University of Saskatchewan, remaining undefeated at home.
Friday’s matchup against the Alberta Golden Bears was one of the most entertaining games I’ve ever watched live. It doesn’t matter if you’re a casual fan, if you hate basketball, or if you think Scalabrine was one of The Godfather’s five families, because the intensity and miraculous finish made this one a classic.
UBC’s star guard Nathan Yu is horrific in the opening minutes. The Thunderbirds’ leading scorer struggles to find his rhythm throughout the first half and only hits one shot – a three ball – by halftime. Meanwhile, the Golden Bears fifth-year guard Daniel Ferguson, is on a mission to add to UBC’s struggle with teams east of the Rockies, as he spearheads the visitors to a 37-35 lead at halftime. At this point, Ferguson leads all scorers with 14, including two deep threes and a perfect six for six from the free-throw line.
Fifth-year T-Bird Doug Plumb and second-year forward Tommy Nixon are the only players with consistent first-half offense, netting 10 and eight points respectively.
Then the third quarter approaches and the rims shrink for both squads. UBC goes 4-14 in the Q, and Alberta not much better at 5-15. But the Golden Bears continue to maintain the lead, heading into the fourth up 50-45.
Alberta’s leading scorer on the season, 6-7 guard Jordan Baker, has just three points on 1-8 shooting.
Yu and Baker are invisible, UBC’s losing on their home court, Ferguson’s drilling 40-footers (honestly, on one play he heat-checked a pull-up three and was closer to half than the arc), and it’s apparent that this is not an ordinary night on the hardwood.
So cue the final quarter, where everyone forgets about what transpired in the previous 30 minutes, and clutch players take centre-stage. Yu opens the scoring with an 18-footer and the Birds manage to get consecutive stops on defense. Rookie guard Geoff Pippus, who had been sidelined for more than a season with a broken foot, comes off the bench to hit a triple and a tough bank-runner, pulling the Thunderbirds within three halfway through the Q.
“I’m really happy to have him back in the rotation now after a year and a half of being injured,” said UBC head coach Kevin Hanson. “He came with basically a broken foot, had to rehab it for a long time, so we weren’t even sure if he was going to have a career at UBC.”
Alberta keeps answering via Ferguson or third-year forward Todd Bergen Henengouwen, then Yu drills a pull-up three to tie it up at 59 with 2:40 to go.
After buckets on both ends and now under pressure in the frontcourt, a Golden Bear barely manages to hand the ball off to Ferguson, only to have him step over half and commit a backcourt violation.
The next play has Yu drive past three defenders and get stripped by Henengouwen, who quickly outlets to Ferguson, who despite coming up with huge buckets all night, defers to Baker, who drives baseline, draws multiple defenders – and feeds the ball right to Yu.
Fifth-year guard Doug Plumb then brings the rock up, and everyone in the building knows whose hands it’s going to end up in. Yu races from one sideline to the other, slicing through screens and frees himself up for a shot in the exact same spot where he had drained one less than two minutes before. Plumb dishes it to Yu and he fires a bomb that would’ve brought 802 fans to their feet.
Except unlike the previous swish for Yu, this one ends with a clank.
Alberta now has the ball with 59 seconds left.
Ferguson has cooled off at this point and the Golden Bears hope their previously non-existent star Baker is carrying a dagger on him.
Baker, defended by the lanky, 6-6 Nixon, looks for Ferguson, who’s draped by T-Bird guard Malcolm Williams. So Baker, with no other option but to turn on the tunnel vision, waves away a screen and isolates Nixon just above the three-point line. He goes right, wraps it behind his back to go left, but Nixon’s a step ahead. Baker loses his dribble and chases it toward his bench’s sideline, nearly falling out of bounds.
As he picks up the dribble with immense defensive pressure from Nixon, he tries to curl past the T-Bird and is clearly fouled on the body – but no call. Baker continues his drive to the hoop and pulls up from about six feet, with Nixon riding his ass every inch of the way.
In 25 minutes of play before this final possession, Baker was 1-9 from the field, 0-3 from three-point range and had committed six turnovers. Was he due for a big bucket or was it just not his day?
I’ll go with “Due for a Big Bucket” for $800, Alex.
Just a step away from the basket and with Nixon drenched all over him, Baker gets about a half-an-inch of elevation and pulls up with the sweet lefty stroke that has failed him all night.
Not this time though. He banks it in over two defenders.
The ball advances to the frontcourt, with Plumb inbounding and 25 seconds left on the clock. Yu snakes his way from the block up to the half court line, and Plumb tosses it in. Defending Yu is Alberta’s speedy guard, 6-2 Matthew Cardoza, who pokes the pass away and chases the ball the length of the court but fails to reach it in time before it bounces out.
I was sitting right beside UBC’s play-by-play team of Daryl Wener and Doug Richards, and as the game got more exciting, they gradually started to talk louder and louder, and offered this after the near steal by Cardoza:
“You remember what I said a little earlier in the game, when I believe it was Doug Plumb who missed those two free throws? It was early in the second half, and you got to get those points where they’re available.”
The ball’s inbounded to the aforementioned Plumb with 23 seconds left in the game and 22 on the shot clock. He methodically crosses the ball over just inside the half court line, waiting for Yu to make his move and get open.
16 left on the shot clock.
Yu bolts from the corner towards Plumb and takes a hand off with Cardoza all over him. Yu makes his move towards the hoop and Cardoza’s too close, getting whistled for the foul – the first of Alberta’s for the entire fourth quarter.
Yu to inbound on the sideline, shot clock is turned off, 10.2 left on the game clock.
A quick pass into a flashing Nixon, Yu steps inbounds and Nixon returns it back to him. As Yu tries to go baseline, Nixon’s defender goes to help, and Yu’s now blanketed by green and gold. He throws a desperation kick out back to Nixon.
Five seconds left.
Nixon feeds it to the top to Plumb, who beats Ferguson and barrels towards the hoop. Cardoza steps into his path and sets up for the charge. At this point, with that much steam behind him and a one-track mind, there’s no turning back for Plumb.
He takes out Cardoza, the ball doesn’t drop, and the foul goes in favour of the T-Birds.
2.7 seconds left.
I don’t usually argue with a ref’s decision, as they’re a lot more qualified and have to make up a decision in the split of a second, but Cardoza was set.
Regardless, Plumb was headed to the line and the broadcast booth was back at it:
“How ironic that it’s going to be Doug Plumb at the free-throw line, with a chance to redeem himself.”
Plumb shoots the first one, and it loops down the rim and pops back out. The collective groan heard throughout War Memorial is something I don’t wish upon my worst enemy.
Forced to miss the second free-throw in hopes of an offensive rebound, Plumb unloads a one-armed chest pass intended for the front of the rim. But it’s got too much mustard behind it and bounces off only the backboard.
2.7 seconds left.
Yu and Williams go into mimicking poses with both hands to their heads, Kamar Burke immediately begins walking to the other end of the court, Nixon just freezes on the spot in disbelief and Plumb grabs the ball that had bounced back to him and casually lays it in off the backboard. On the sidelines, Hanson starts to pace back and forth with his head down.
“And that’s gonna be it,” says the broadcast booth.
Alberta calls a timeout and the attendance drops down from 802 to about 790. The play-by-play guys start to talk about the next night’s game against Saskatchewan and the deflated Thunderbirds squad gathers around Hanson for one last-ditch effort for a miracle defensive play/full court shot in under 2.7 ticks. Plumb stoically stares below Hanson’s gaze.
Baker sets up as the inbounder and has to deal with 6-9 senior Balraj Bains attempting to obstruct his view. The ref hands the ball to Baker and Bains begins his jumping jacks, while the Golden Bear guard who just put his team up two is struggling to find an open man.
On the court, the Birds do a more than impressive job at switching through screens, as Ferguson curls off two of them in order to break free. Yu remains too close to him, and Baker hesitates for just a half-a-second, slowly beginning to lean inbounds. Now with no choice but to get the ball in play, Baker heaves a pass intended for no one in particular, but steps onto the court before he releases it.
2.7 seconds left.
“UBC is going to have to get the ball in very quickly, they’ll have a chance to maybe dribble once or twice before they get the shot off. But they’re not gonna have much time, it’s gonna be a tic-tac-toe play,” says Richards.
“Oh I think it’s gonna be a three!” says Wener. “This is a three.”
Advancing the ball into the front court, UBC sends the rookie Williams to the sideline inbound, and the four others gather in a group at the right free-throw junction.
Assistant coach Jamie Oei walks onto the court to whisper something into Burke’s ear as the timeout expires. Burke takes a glance towards the rim.
First, Pippus runs past a Nixon screen to get a look in the corner.
Then Yu uses the same screen to curl around the top of the arc.
All the action is happening near the inbounder, with various T-Bird’s scurrying about. Meanwhile, Burke just stands patiently in the same spot he started in, with Baker loosely guarding him.
Baker takes one quick step up just in case Nixon gets the ball after his screening duty, and Burke takes note of the mistake. He begins to sprint towards the hoop, with Williams recognizing that Burke has found the weakness.
The 6-5 hulk of a player takes two giant leaps and elevates, while Williams delivers a perfect soccer-style throw in.
Burke catches. Baker’s late. Ball gets tipped off the glass and in.
“That is the most incredible, impossibly improbable, completely implausible, ending to a ball game, or at least to regulation,” says Richards.
“It was our third option,” said Hanson after the game. “Kamar made a good read and it was a great pass. I learned from coach (Bruce) Enns when I played for him that tricky players win games not tricky plays.”
There’s still 1.2 seconds remaining, and Alberta is out of timeouts. Henengouwen sets up 94 feet away at the other baseline and as soon as the referee hands him the ball, he cocks it back and rockets a one-handed Tebow-like Hail Mary to the opposite end of the court. At the same time that Henengouwen goes into his throwing motion, Cardoza begins to beat everyone down the court and catches the prayer in the air, right beneath the hoop. Two UBC defenders try to stay with Cardoza, one of them being Burke, who finds himself undercutting the Golden Bear as he tries to sneak it in for the win.
Cardoza flips over top of Burke, the ball never got close to the rim, and there is no call on the play.
We’re heading to overtime.
The five minutes after the fourth quarter buzzer were nothing like the five before it. After Baker hit one of two free-throws to open up the scoring, Yu responded with an impossible fade away J to put the Birds up one, and they wouldn’t relinquish the lead for the rest of overtime.
Baker was fouled out shortly after his free-throws and Ferguson’s range couldn’t bring the Golden Bears back to life, bricking the 30-40 footers he had made a living off of in regulation.
Burke and Yu combined for 15 points in the extra frame, as UBC outscored Alberta 18-9
Final score: 82-71 UBC.
In a sub-par night for their leader, Yu led all scorers with 22 points to go along with six assists and four rebounds.
The Thunderbirds essentially won a game that they shouldn’t have, but finished with the poise and precision that they continue to display year after year.
On Saturday, UBC managed to pull out a 69-60 victory over the University of Saskatchewan Huskies, despite shooting 38.1 per cent from the field and committing 29 turnovers.
Yu led all scorers once again with 22 points, as well as six rebounds and three steals. Reigning CIS Player of The Year Jamelle Barrett had an off night for the Huskies, scoring only 17 points of 4-20 shooting. The Huskies missed 11 free-throws and only shot 16.7 per cent from the field in the first half.
“That was a game of just mental toughness,” said Yu after Saturday’s game. “Both teams were so exhausted. We’re not the most-deep team so a lot of guys are playing major minutes. We were tired, it was just a game of defense and grinding it out and we were the tougher team thank god.”