VANCOUVER — There is a little part of Kevin Hanson the player, who still remembers what it was like, some 33 years ago, to be part of a team which was able to catch lightning in a bottle.
Today, he’s 20 seasons into his journey as the head coach of the UBC Thunderbirds, but back in that 1986-87 season, the scrappy fifth-year senior Hanson captained the ‘Birds to a best-of-three Canada West series sweep over Victoria, snapping the Vikes’ streak of national titles at six, and eventually helping lead UBC to a second-place finish at the national championships.
Funny how over three decades later, that same feeling seems to have returned to the program.
This time, however, it’s Hanson the head coach, and fifth-year senior point guard Jadon Cohee, who despite their stylistic contrasts, have somehow formed a symbiotic relationship.
“I’ve had a front-row seat to all of his games, and on Saturday, I observed an incredible performance by Jadon,” Hanson said of Cohee, who on Tuesday was not only named the Canada West first star of the week for scoring 24 points in UBC’s 72-70 conference-clinching win over Alberta, but as one of the 25 greatest players in the 75-year history of the B.C. high school boys basketball championships.
“He came in this afternoon and he just wanted to talk, and that’s the best part of coaching, talking about the game,” continued Hanson of a Monday meeting with Cohee. “Jadon is in a great place right now. Coming off ball screens, he’s making the right reads every time. He’s in that special zone. Your go-to-guys need to do it in the playoffs, and that’s what I always liked about him. In high school (at Walnut Grove), when he played in the championship game, he was the best player on the floor. The MVP. That is stuff you can’t teach.”
And not unlike 33 years ago, all of that has allowed the ‘Birds to once again catch lightning in a bottle as they head into Friday’s opening tip (3 p.m. PST) at the U Sports Final 8 national championships against Bishops as the No. 3 seed.
Perhaps you’ve noticed the string of impressive headlines announcing the feats of Hanson’s blue-and-gold clad ‘Birds over the past few weeks, where since the playoffs have begun, UBC has beaten Saskatchewan, No. 4 Calgary and then No. 3 Alberta, back-to-back-to-back on the road to win the conference and become the 11th-hour talk of the U Sports basketball world.
Yet the late surge is not just a case of happenstance, or a team getting hot at just the right time.
Instead, it’s been a story of three past-and-present point guards: One the longtime head coach, one who decided to leave the program and transfer to defending national champion Carleton, and the other who if you ask him to define his actual position will tell you “I’m a basketball player.”
As the 2019-20 season was set to begin at UBC, the team learned that rising third-year starting point guard Mason Bourcier was assessing his future.
Bourcier, the former Kelowna Owls standout, would eventually leave the program and sign on with the Ravens, whom he will officially suit up for in the 2020-21 season.
The dominos from that decision quickly filtered to Hanson, who would ultimately install the non-traditional Cohee as his starting point guard.
From that point forward, the most important thing that happened within the UBC men’s basketball program was the team embracing its new style, ultimately trusting that they could re-invent themselves as something even greater.
Quite simply, that’s what has happened at UBC since mid-January, and empowered by their success, Cohee and Co. carry an eight-game win streak into the nationals.
“Last season, with Mason here, I played off the ball,” Cohee explained Monday, one day ahead of the team’s flight back east to the championship site in the nation’s capital.
“I’ve always just considered myself a basketball player, but when Mason left, I moved to point guard,” continued Cohee.
“Kev was obviously a great passer himself, and he has taught me how to manage a game. He sees the game in a different way than I do, and that always leads to some interesting talks. We each have our opinions, but he accepts and understands me, which is huge. He’s allowed me to flourish with the talents I have.”
That has been the biggest key.
Hanson, the old-school point guard whose 10.5 apg average in 1986-87 is still the program benchmark, has found a way to play to Cohee’s James Harden-like strengths, while still keeping forward Grant Shephard, and likes of guards Manroop Clair and Grant Audu vital to the schematic.
“The guys have just jelled and bonded, and we’re in the zone. .. we’re staying in the moment,” adds Hanson, who adds that the team’s belief in each other “has turned us into something special.”
“It’s almost less coaching and more managing what we have been doing,” the coach continues. “And I think this year, more than ever, I have a confidence going into the national tournament because of the way the guys have performed.”
To Cohee, all of this is his own version of lightning in a bottle.
“It’s a surreal feeling,” he says. “It’s been a long year. At the start of the year, we struggled. We lost Mason, who in my opinion is one of the best in the country. We banded together. We were not a good team for a long time, but we’ve peaked at the right time.
“It’s just an unreal feeling,” he concludes. “We just believe no matter what anyone thinks.”
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