On Saturday night, the only thing up for grabs was bragging rights.
Well that, and a provincial gold medal.
Both the Vancouver Island University Mariners and Langara College Falcons had already qualified for CCAA nationals by making it to Saturday’s final. Win or lose, they were both going to get a chance to showcase their talents on the brightest collegiate stage in Canada.
But it was evident that both squads wanted to finish their PacWest campaigns as champs. Whether it was for bragging rights, that gold medal, or the momentum that a conference title gives a team headed to Nat’s, both VIU and Langara didn’t take the task lightly.
Jitinder Lohcham poured in 25 points and led Langara to a 78-74 win over VIU to claim PacWest gold in Victoria at Camosun’s Pacific Institute for Sport Excellence.
“You can’t ask for a better final than that,” said Langara head coach Paul Eberhardt after the game, fitted with the winning net around his neck. “A really intense defensive team, which is what we’re going to see from these teams back east – you know, very physical defense – a close game where it came right down to the end. It’s perfect. For both teams, it’ll be a great preparation for nationals.”
“We’ve played these guys tough all year and tonight was no different,” said VIU head coach Matt Kuzminski. “We had chances to win, and we just can’t seem to get over the hump with them. They’re a very good team, they’re well-coached, they’re long, they’re athletic – unlike any other team that we play in this PacWest conference. But our guys compete and they get after it, and defensively we give ourselves a chance. These guys average about 95 points and I think they had about 78. So if we’re playing in the 70’s with Langara, we’re giving ourselves chance, but tonight we just couldn’t get it done.”
Langara, ranked second in the nation and this year’s clear favourite in the PacWest, averaged 96.6 points against every team without the letters ‘VIU’ on their jerseys.
But against the Mariners this year, Langara averaged only 77.
Their average margin of victory against every other team in the PacWest was 26.1 points.
Against VIU, it was just 5.8.
So what does the seventh-best team in Canada do that the others in B.C. don’t?
“They defend the shit out of you,” said Eberhardt. “They’re physical, they don’t back down, and they hammer you on every cut and they go after every rebound. They’re tough. They’re just super tough.”
For a team that had 10 players with five or more points the night before against Douglas College, Langara clearly looked frustrated offensively throughout their war with VIU.
Lohcham, who shot 9-14 from the field, 2-2 from long range, and 5-6 from the free-throw line, was the only consistent form of scoring for a usually potent Falcons attack.
The same went for VIU. Point guard Brandon Jones, the only guy on the floor for all 40 minutes Saturday, dropped 42 points, including five threes, to lead all scorers. The other four Mariners starters only added 10 points.
“Brandon’s been huge. I didn’t know what to expect from him coming from America, but he’s such a nice kid, he’s easy to coach, he wants to do the right things,” said Kuzminski of his star. “He takes more and more leadership as the year goes on and he’s handled the game way better as a point guard.”
The first quarter was a battle centered around the scoring prowess of both Lohcham and Jones, as Langara’s big man connected on two threes, while the VIU PG nailed his own pair from distance.
Langara held a 20-12 advantage after one, but VIU rushed out to a 10-2 run, which ballooned into a 19-9 run – giving the Mariners their first lead of the game with four minutes remaining in the half.
Jones finished his first 20 minutes with 29 points, and gave VIU a slim 41-37 at the break.
To begin the third quarter, Jones picked up right where he left off, splashing another trey, then drawing a charge the very next play. While Lang continued to pound it in to Lohcham – who kept delivering.
“Jitt has just gotten better and better as the year’s gone on,” said Eberhardt. “He’s a prolific scorer for us, and as long as he remembers to get his ass on the boards, then he’s a great player. He had a great game.”
Three minutes into the third, the Falcons point guard, and PacWest Player of the Year Brody Greig nailed a DEEP 44-footer to tie it up at 44 apiece.
Okay, it was probably more like 37 feet, but considering the score, I’m saying it was from 44.
Both squads traded buckets for the next few minutes, and things were all tied up at 59 heading into the final frame.
VIU’s first bucket came four minutes into the quarter, but they battled back in the form of a Ryan Davidson three, and a pair of free throws from both Jason McKee and Jones, bringing Langara’s lead down to 72-71 and just over a minute remaining.
And what a thrilling final minute it turned out to be.
On the next possession, Falcons forward Jesse Jeffers drove and drew a double team, then dished it off to Elliot Mason for an easy two – giving Langara a three-point lead.
Jones fired up a three on the other end, it clanked, and it looked as though VIU’s fate was sealed. But the long arms of 6-10 forward Adam Connolly batted the ball out past the reach of VIU rookie John Bethell. With both Bethell and Mason now pursuing the ball, Bethell leapt over it and Mason snagged it, taking it home for two of his 13 points, plus the foul.
While the replay showed Mason pushing off Jones as the rebound was batted out, and then slightly pushing Bethell’s back in order to reach the ball, both went uncalled and Mason made arguably the most important play of the game.
Despite only one team getting to experience the net-cutting, medal receiving, and a copious amount of post-game iPhone parent-induced photos, both are now focused on the same goal: winning a national title in Montreal next weekend.
“We’re going to be upset, and it’s only natural,” said Kuzminski. “You’ll be upset for maybe tonight and tomorrow, but we’ll be back at practice on Monday, back preparing for nationals. Our ultimate goal is still alive and that’s something that you can be happy about. We are not going into an offseason right now with this feeling.”
“Nationals has been our goal from the start of the year,” added Eberhardt. “I’m pretty realistic about most of the teams that I have, but I said to these guys in our first meeting of the year that if you’re here to make playoffs and maybe win one game – that you’re in the wrong place. There’s enough talent in this room to win nationals. Hopefully we’ll go back east, perform well, and win another title.”
And there’s always the potential for another meeting in Montreal. Both Eberhardt and Kuzminski know that every game has been one or two plays away from an opposite result.
“All of our games with VIU have been pretty close, and you know I’m surprised they didn’t get one from us – and they still could,” said Ebe.
“We’ve been close three times and I thought maybe this was the time – and again we were close. We were right there,” said Kuzminski. “We cut it down from six to four, and maybe next time we can chip another four off of there.”
VIU and Langara have just over a week to prepare for the CCAA nationals, hosted by John Abbott College in Sainte Anne de Bellevue, Quebec, from Mar. 14-16.
PacWest playoff awards:
Tournament all stars
- Jitt Lohcham – Langara
- Brody Greig – Langara
- Jesse Jeffers – Langara
- Cartiea French-Toney – Quest
- Ryan Davidson – VIU
- Brandon Jones – VIU