VANCOUVER — By his own admission, Manroop Clair is still not back in game shape.
Yet the UBC Thunderbirds’ dead-eye shooting guard is so dangerous that even without his legs fully under him, he’s still capable of being a difference maker.
On Saturday, still reeling from having played back-to-back games the previous two nights in its Canada West best-of-three quarterfinal against the Fraser Valley Cascades following just over three weeks on the shelf with an elbow injury, Clair begged off the morning shoot-around in order to conserve the energy he knew he would need in a winner-take-all clash that evening at War Gym.
It hindsight, it was a prudent decision, and in the end it potentially gave the ‘Birds just enough to hold off their never-say-die visitors from Abbotsford.
Clair played a virtually flawless first half, dropping a Jordan-esque 23 points in just 17 minutes by hitting four triples and going 7-for-7 from the free throw line to stake UBC to a 46-30 lead at halftime.
The pace may have caught up to the former Burnaby South Rebel and Seattle University transfer a bit in the second half as he added just six more points the rest of the way to finish with a game-high 29, yet he was nonetheless the central character in a series-clinching 85-73 win that was closer than the final score would indicate.
“This morning, I couldn’t go to shoot-around,” Clair told GoThunderbirds.ca after the game. “I was too tired. (But) I came in today and hit every shot. I just play.”
The road now takes UBC to Edmonton for a best-of-three conference semifinal series against the host Golden Bears set to begin Friday.
And although there were plenty of tense moments for the home team over the three-games series, UBC head coach Kevin Hanson seemed most encouraged by the rapid progress Clair has shown since emerging from sick bey.
“The big positive is Roop,” said Hanson of Clair. “It was the first weekend back for him. He got a little tired in the second half, but playing three games when you haven’t played in a month is tough to do.
“But the resiliency of the guys, they played loose,” added Hanson, whose team never panicked when the Cascades closed to within 74-69 on a Parm Bains’ lay-in with 6:02 remaining. “When we needed a bucket we got one. And when we needed a stop we got one.”
That indeed was the case down the stretch drive.
After the Cascades pulled to within five, UBC closed the game on an 11-4 run fuelled by a trio of Jadon Cohee jumpers, while the defence which did its best to limit UFV to 2-for-9 shooting from the field over the final six minutes of play.
Cohee finished with 20 points and forward Grant Shephard with 15.
“Everybody just wanted to leave it all on the floor,” Fraser Valley fifth-year guard Mark Johnson (13 points), the only player to never leave the floor Saturday, told GoCascades.ca afterwards. “We came out a little tentative, a little nervous. I don’t know why. In the second half, we just left it all out there. We didn’t want to go down without a fight. We went on a couple of runs, got a couple stops, got back in the game. We just couldn’t get that secondary stop or secondary rebound. But I’m really proud of my team. We fought as hard as we could, and it’s been a great season.”
Heading into the series, UBC had put a huge impetus on winning the rebounding battle, and with a plus-14 differential, blue-collar efforts from starting forward Patrick Simon (14 rebounds, nine points) and reserve guard Isaiah Familia (10 rebounds) made the difference.
“Before the game we said that our No. 1 stat line will be rebouding,” said Hanson. “In the losses we’ve had this year we’ve been out-rebounded. I thought we did a good job with that and I am proud of the way these guys came back after being down after Game 1.”
Cascades’ head coach Adam Friesen, who loses Johnson, Navjot Bains and Andrew Morris to graduation, asked his team to play with no regrets and afterwards he applauded his team’s effort.
“We’ve been showing character all season,” said Friesen whose team missed a couple of shots over their tough 2-for-9 game-closing shooting funk which might have changed the game’s direction. “It’s become who this group is, and who we want to continue to be moving forward. Things looked tough in the first quarter. But we were determined to keep going and believed we could make things interesting. And that’s what we did.”
Morris finished his UFV career with a monster game, going 10-of-18 from the floor and scoring a team-high 23 points.
Parm Bains added 16 points off the bench.
Clair, who guarded Parm Bains the entire series, was often seen engaged in friendly, competitive banter with the Cascades’ ace sixth man.
“It was definitely a battle guarding Parm,” said Clair after the win. “My brother trains him and I train with him in the summer. It was great to go against him and he played a hell of a series. Points don’t show, like they did Tuesday (when Bains scored 26 points), but he played great. It was tough guarding him and I give him a lot of credit.”
UBC now gets a chance at redemption.
The ‘Birds closed out their regular season two weekends ago by being swept at the hands of the Golden Bears, coached by former UFV head coach Barnaby Craddock, a Vancouver native.
On Saturday, Alberta topped Lethbridge 86-68 to win its best-of-three series with Lethbridge 2-1, getting 17 points from former Semiahmoo Totems standout Adam Paige in the victory.
The UBC-Alberta series will be played in its entirelty in Edmonton. Game one goes Friday (7 p.m.), Game two Saturday (6 p.m.) and an if-necessary Game three on Sunday, Feb. 24 (4 p.m.).
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