If you look at the tournament draw for the PacWest men’s basketball playoffs, it probably won’t be surprising to see that the Vancouver Island University Mariners (VIU) and the University of Northern British Columbia Timberwolves (UNBC) will be playing for gold tonight.
They finished the regular season with the two best records, VIU at 15-1 and UNBC 13-3. They boast the two most experienced starting lineups with a combined 39 collegiate seasons between the two.
They’ve also been in this same situation for the past two years, with UNBC coming out on top in 2010 – going on to win gold at nationals – and VIU prevailing last year – claiming CCAA bronze.
But regular season accomplishments, veteran experience, and a successful past doesn’t pave the way to the provincial finals. These two teams had to go to war with two formidable foes to reach their primetime matchup on Saturday night.
Semifinal #1 – UNBC Timberwolves vs Camosun Chargers
A huge factor in this tournament so far has been depth, and UNBC’s ability to have their veteran leaders put points on the board when it mattered most was the deciding factor in this one.
Charles Barton scored 20 points on 75 per cent shooting to the Timberwolves to a 93-84 victory over the Camosun College Chargers Friday, Mar. 2, at the Capilano University Sportsplex in North Vancouver.
Barton was one of five UNBC players to reach double figures.
“That more than anything is probably the strength of our team,” said UNBC head coach Todd Jordan. “We’ve got a lot of weapons that can get going at any time.”
Camosun was setting the stage for a huge upset by heading into halftime up 35-31, and then battled hard in the third to head into the final frame down 54-52.
But UNBC’s fast-paced offence that had been hiding for the first 30 minutes of the game came out in full force in fourth. Midway through the final frame, the Timberwolves fourth-year guard tandem of Joel Rybachuk and Francis Rowe put a string of field goals together and put any chances of a Charger comeback to rest.
The only problem for UNBC is that Camosun’s head coach Craig Price didn’t see it that way. He slowed down the clock and his squad sent UNBC to the free-throw line 21 times in the final five minutes.
“We’ve lost to this team twice by large margins, and we’ve been outworked and out… efforted, for a lack of better terms. And I don’t think that happened today,” said Price.
“Did we falter at the end and miss on some execution and get in some foul trouble when we weren’t guarding the ball well? Yeah, but I don’t want to make any excuses – the better team won.”
No matter the outcome, Price said he was proud of his young team for warring with a battle-tested roster.
“Sometimes you don’t get the W, you get the L. But I’m proud of the way we carried ourselves and that we weren’t yipping and hooting and hollering after we won yesterday. So I don’t know what to tell you – I’m happy.”
Jordan Elvedahl, who I’m going to label the hardest working player of the game, scored 19 points and dished out nine assists, while ROY James Blandford scored another 19 to go along with eight boards. Blake Mansbridge and Trevor Scheurmann added 14 and 11 each.
Besides the big game off the bench for Barton, the Timberwolves got a 19-point contribution from fourth-year guard Sam Raphael, while fifth-year Dennis Stark dropped 15 on 7-for-9 shooting. The sharpshooting Rowe had 14 points, and Rybachuk put in an efficient line of 13 points, nine assists, and zero turnovers.
“Craig Price has a got a lot of reasons to be proud of his team,” said Jordan. “We went down to Victoria and beat them pretty bad [117-77], so they could’ve have very easily come in here with the wrong mental mindset, but that’s a good team and they battled us real tough.”
Now UNBC looks ahead to the matchup that everyone’s been waiting for, a matchup that most expected, but a matchup that was anything but easy to get to.
Semifinal #2 – Capilano Blues vs VIU Mariners
The Blues had everything going their way. A boisterous home crowd, a hungry squad eager to get a shot at a provincial title that felt so close the season before, and a 13-11 lead after one quarter of play that had their veteran opponents nervous.
Then the Blues hit a wall.
Their shots stopped dropping, the opposing team’s fans started to cheer a little louder than their own, and that narrow two point lead slipped away until it snowballed into an insurmountable deficit.
The Vancouver Island University Mariners utilized their experienced roster and suffocating defence to defeat the Capilano University Blues 67-57 in the PacWest semifinals on Friday night in North Vancouver.
VIU’s Patrick McCarthy registered a double-double of 20 points and 12 rebounds, while fellow fifth-year Jacob Thom recorded 18 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in the victory.
“You could see that there were nerves for us early and we were doing things that we don’t normally do,” aid Mariners head coach Tony Bryce. “But we were fortunate enough to kind of settle and then start doing what we really wanted to do.”
“I think as the game progressed that our legs just wore down,” said Capilano’s bench boss Jordan Yu. “That was [VIU’s] first game of the weekend and we had a tough battle last night against Langara. As the game went on our percentages went down, and down, and down.”
How far down you ask? Their field goal shooting was 31 per cent on the night, 11 per cent from the three-point, and just 29 per cent from the free-throw line.
“We shot 4-for-14 from the free-throw line. That’s the game right there,” said Yu.
The most anticipated matchup of the night was a point-guard duel between Capilano’s James Lum and VIU’s Thom. Throughout the weekend, many coaches testified that Thom was one of, if not the best player in the country, and he sure gave them reason to believe after completely controlling the bulk of the game.
Every time Capilano looked as though they were about to muster any momentum, Thom would rip their hope out with either a well-timed long bomb or an on-point assist.
“He was a little nervous to start, being his fifth year and that fear of losing and being completely done,” said Bryce. “But I expect him to be even better tomorrow – that’s the scary thing.”
Lum had one of the best games of his career the night before, and no doubt his legs felt the effects from carrying his team to victory just 24 hours before.
“When he’s not hitting his outside shot, it becomes really tough for him to score because he’s undersized,” said Yu.
“Jordan Yu’s a fantastic coach,” said Bryce. “I knew they’d be well prepared, and that they would rattle us and try some things and junk it up – and they did. He did everything he could to try and beat us.”
“Some people may think it’s crazy, but I do believe in basketball gods and they just weren’t looking down on us tonight,” added Yu.
Now VIU is set to play UNBC in the B.C. finals for the third time in as many years, and Bryce knows what he’s in for.
“It’s going to be a war,” he said. “It’s going to be a physical, physical battle.”
Bryce then pointed to the change room. “They’re not real happy in there. They’re not happy with their performance. They know they could’ve been better and they should’ve been better. So I hope they take that and that we’re a little bit sharper and crisper tomorrow.”