VANCOUVER — Over the course of a 17-game in-conference win streak which defined its Canada West regular season schedule, it was sometimes difficult to wonder if the UBC Thunderbirds were getting the level of competition which would best serve them on the road towards qualifying for the ultimate challenge.
That, of course, is this weekend’s U Sports’ national men’s basketball Final 8 championships which begins a three-day run Friday at the Halifax’s Scotiabank Centre.
And while UBC has managed to secure their place within that elite final mix, it hasn’t been as much for its gaudy 17-3 Canada West regular-season conference mark as it has for the resiliency of the team’s figurative spine.
If you include its final two games of the regular season, in Edmonton against the Alberta Golden Bears, the ‘Birds have played six of their last nine away from War Memorial Gymnasium with more to come in Halifax.
That UBC is a distinctly non-glamourous 4-5 in those games, twice winning within a sudden-elimination environment guarantees nothing about their fate at the Final 8.
Yet talk to any basketball coach at this time of season, and the number one thing they want to be able to say about their team is that they are battle-tested.
These ‘Birds are that.
In fact if you get head coach Kevin Hanson on the phone from the tournament site in Halifax, you can hear in his voice how the 2018-19 ‘Birds are letting nothing disrupt their pre-tournament process.
“A plane skidded off the runway in Halifax so they had to shut down the airport,” Hanson said Tuesday evening from the Nova Scotia capital, a full day after he and his team were forced into an extended layover the previous night in Montreal. “We sat in the airport for five hours (waiting for a connecting flight to Halifax) then had to go to a hotel for the night.”
Add that experience to all of the ones which have preceded it, and it’s all a part earning that battle-tested stamp every team playing basketball in March wants to have.
*UBC won on the final night of both of its best-of-three conference series, one on the road in Edmonton against a hostile Golden Bears crowd.
*It lost last week by 15 on the road in the conference championship game to the unbeaten, defending national champion and No. 2 Final 8 seed Calgary Dinos at the Jack Simpson Gym.
*And now, as part of the featured final game of Final 8’s opening Friday (4 p.m. PST, full Day 1 draw below), they will come out onto the floor at a sold-out Scotia Bank Centre to face the host and freshly re-minted AUS champions, the Dalhousie Tigers (14-6).
“I think the start time, with the (four hour) change of time, it gives you the opportunity to play your best,” said Hanson who in past seasons has had to prepare his team to play after flying across the country with tip-off at times that were before 12 noon in Vancouver.
“With the build-up (Dalhousie’s) had after playing in their conference title game last week, they expect it to be packed and electrifying, with everybody in town there,” Hanson added. “It’s a national championship showcase game with the local team, so there is no excuse not to be fired up.
“Playing in front of hostile crowds in Edmonton (UBC played the Golden Bears five times at the Saville Centre in February), and then last week in front of a sold-out crowd in Calgary…it’s all prepared us well.”
And just what will the ‘Birds be facing come Friday?
The Dalhousie Tigers topped the St. Mary’s Huskies 65-55 last Sunday to win its fourth Atlantic University Sport title in the past five years.
Dal is a team with size, yet so much of why they are successful stems from their athleticism and the pressure schemes employed by its veteran head coach Rick Plato.
“Their 6-foot-6 guard (Alex Carson, 14.5 ppg) is really tough and a great three-point shooter,” begins Hanson of the Tigers’ third-year regular-season scoring leader.
Dalhousie starts 6-foot-10 fourth-year forward Sascha Kappos (13.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and brings 6-foot-11 fifth-year Mike Shoveller (8.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg) off the bench.
The three other regular starters have been 6-foot-4 second-year guard Keevan Veinot (11.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 5.0 apg), 6-foot-1 second-year guard Xavier Ochu (9.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg) and 6-foot-2 fourth-year guard Cedric Sanogo (7.4 ppg, 5.5 rpg).
For Hanson, there is some familiarity with what the Tigers are all about.
As an assistant coach with the 2018 Commonwealth Games team, the ‘Birds head coach worked with a roster which included ex-UBC star Conor Morgan and current star Grant Shephard, as well as Shoveller, who had originally played at Queen’s.
And then there’s Hanson’s stint through the 1990s at Langara, where he led the Falcons to a pair of CCAA national titles.
It was over that period that his paths often times would cross with Plato, the then-successful head coach of Halifax’s resident CCAA power, the Mount Saint Vincent Mystics.
“Rick and I go way back to my college days at Langara,” confirms Hanson. “We played against each other at (CCAA) nationals but not in the finals.
“(Dalhousie) is known to be a defensive team,” he continued. “They are very physical and they will play a pressure style. Very seldom do they play their two bigs (Kappos, Shoveller) together. They play a lot of small ball, a lot like Canada West.”
Although they have made many trips to Halifax for Final 8 nationals, this will be UBC’s first trip there since 2011 when it lost to conference rival Trinity Western in the national semifinal and then beat Saskatchewan to finish third.
UBC did not qualify for nationals in 2012, last travelled to a Final 8 in 2013 at Ottawa, then played in the tournament as the hosts in 2016.
That 2011 team which played in Halifax featured the likes of Josh Whyte, Alex Murphy, Brent Malish, Doug Plumb, Kamar Burke, Mel Mayott, Nathan Yu, Balraj Bains and Graham Bath.
While not as experienced as that group, this season’s Birds have built-in a level of grittiness to its talented core of Jadon Cohee, Manroop Clair, Mason Bourcier, Shephard and Patrick Simon. Grant Audu and Isaiah Familia have provided substantial bench minutes, while Jonah Morrison, Cam Morris, Brian Wallack, Lincoln Rosebush and Charles Dai have completed the group.
U SPORTS FINAL 8
Quarterfinals (all times PST)
8 a.m. — No. 2 Calgary vs. No. 7 St. Mary’s
10 a.m. — No. 3 Ryerson vs. No. 6 Concordia
2 p.m. — No. 1 Carleton vs. No. 8 Alberta
4 p.m. — No. 4 UBC vs. No. 5 Dalhousie
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