LANGLEY— Their compass won’t let them down.
For a second straight night here at the CCAA men’s national basketball championships, the Vancouver Island Mariners have stared down a double-digit defict and in the end, turned it to dust.
Going down by as many as 19 points early in the third quarter to Montreal’s explosive, young Vanier Cheetahs in the national semifinals, Nanaimo’s Mariners finally looked to have met their match.
Yet just as they rallied in the last two seconds of the PacWest title final to force overtime and ultimately earn their CCAA berth, and just as they overcame an 18-point deficit Thursday in its national tourney-opening win over Calgary’s SAIT Trojans, they pulled another out yet victory from those same ashes of defeat.
Final score: Vancouver Island 85 Vanier 83.
The Mariners are set to face the winner of Friday’s late semifinal between Charlottetown’s Holland Hurricanes and Oakville, Ont.’s Sheridan Bruins in Saturday’s championship final.
“It’s kind of starting to become a regular thing,” said VIU guard Landon Randliff, the PacWest scoring champ who poured home 17 of his game-high 29 points in the second half, including a clutch spin-o-rama fade from 14 feet with 8:48 remaining to help ignite the Mariners’ game-changing 20-6 run, one which came over a span of 7:06 and ultimately gave them their first lead of the game at 79-78 with 2:19 remaining.
“If there’s one thing we always do, it’s never quit,” continued the first-year sensation, a transfer from Walla Walla Community College. “We’re one group and every time we break the huddle, we say ‘one team’ because that’s what we are. We refuse to lose.”
Easier said than done against a young but incredibly talented Vanier team, a CEGEP school which this season has either pushed or defeated some of the best prep schools in the U.S. and were undefeated in league and playoffs coming into Friday’s national semifinal.
When told of Radliff’s belief in his team, Mariners’ head coach Matt Kuzminski had a hard time disagreeing.
“I think that belief is strong because the guys never turn on each other, and it looked really grim there for a while,” said Kuzminski, whose team trailed 45-31 at the half then continued to lose ground through the early stages of the fourth quarter.
“(Vanier) were dictating tempo and everything, really, but we stayed together,” continued Kuzminski, who since assuming the reigns of the program in 2013 has a .500 record in two national championship final game appearances.
“But it had to be about chipping away,” he continued. “Nobody talked about trying to win the game. It was like ‘win the next three minutes, there’s a time-out coming.’ We had to look at manageable chunks because we were up against such a big deficit.”
Radliff’s trey with three seconds left in the first half was huge in terms of the mental hurdle of cutting the deficit to 10 at 69-59.
Then, at the start of the fourth, Vanier’s 6-foot-4 guard Joshua Koulamallah fouled out of the proceedings.
It was time for VIU’s move, and they didn’t disappoint.
A Tyus Barfoot lay-in, Gay’s spinning jumper, Harry Fayle’s hard-driving take to the rim, then a quartet of threes from Radliff, from Gay, from Radliff and then from Fayle.
Barfoot’s aforementioned lay-in with 2:19 remaining game the Mariners their first lead at 79-78, but seconds later Vanier took what would be its final lead of the game at 80-79 on a Pier-Olivier Racine leaner.
Gay, who scored 16 on the game, hit another three, and then big man Jerrod Dorby slammed home the ball for an 84-80 lead with 19.1 seconds remaining to slam the door.
“There’s been no doubt in my mind that we were going to win,” Radliff said when asked what kind of head-space he’s been in here over the past two nights. “I trust in our entire team and I never think we’re going to lose no, no matter how big a hole we dig ourselves.”
It’s hard to deny the hard-court kismet that seems to have enveloped the Mariners, who were 1.2 seconds away from failing to qualify for nationals.
All Kuzminski could say was that Friday’s win bore a striking resemblance to Thursdays, and that the common thread was simple.
“There was a similarity in that I thought we were a bit tentative early, giving them too much credit on the ball,” he said. “But once our guys started to extend themselves, actually getting after and putting it on the line, that’s when things turnaround around.
“The character of our guys, I can’t say enough about that.”
Barfoot had 16 points in the win, and for the second straight night, produced a game-high in rebounds, this time with 12.
Radliff’s remarkable stat line included eight rebounds, seven steals, six assists and a pair of blocks.
Fayle added 14 points and five assists.
Abdou Karim Mane led four Cheetahs in double-digits with 14 points, Nginyu Ngala had 12, Chris Biekeu 11 and Racine 10.
Vanier out-rebounded VIU 54-39.
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