The UBC Thunderbirds knew they needed a hot start on the offensive end and a courageous one on the defensive end if they were going to give themselves any chance at coming out Edmonton this weekend with a berth to the Canada West championship final next March 2 in Calgary against the host Dinos, and a ticket to the U Sports’ Final 8 national championships in Halifax.
Doing it on the road, however, against a Golden Bears team which had swept them to close out the Canada West regular season a few weeks ago was not going to be easy.
The blue-and-gold, however, came out with an archer’s aim on offence, building an 18-3 lead to start, before sacrificing their bodies in the paint on defence, and in the end came away with an impressive 74-62 victory over the Golden Bears to open the best-of-three conference semifinals Friday.
“Mason Bourcier said it best after the game,” UBC head coach Kevin Hanson said in the post-game via telephone. “He brought up the fact that we got out to a 10-0 lead and we won by 10 points (12 points). You never know what window of time is going to be the most crucial, so you have to play every minute.”
And what a first-quarter start it was, and when you think about the energy Alberta had to extend just to get back into the game, that 15-point cushion played a huge, on-going role the rest of the way.
UBC, which led wire-to-wire despite numerous Alberta surges throughout the game, got triples from Patrick Simon, Manroop Clair, Jadon Cohee and Grant Shephard, the latter’s coming with 3:35 left in the opening frame to give the road team that critical early margin lead.
Alberta, to their credit, kept trying to pound the ball inside, and after being held to just 1-for-20 shooting to start the game, they hit their final three attempts from the field, including a Brandon Meiklejohn trey, to cap an 11-0 quarter-ending run and trail 18-11
The defensive key?
Yes, it was the key.
Throughout a week of practice, UBC packed bodies in the painted areas of War Memorial Gymnasium, knowing full well that they needed to play the kind of team defence which would at least slow the progress of the team’s one-man inside wrecking crew.
Brody Clarke had burned the Birds for 40 points on 15-of-18 shooting in a regular-season ending 87-79 win three weeks ago, but on Friday, UBC limited him to 3-of-8 shooting and 14 points.
While Grant Shephard and sub Jonah Morrison each threw themselves at the assignment with utter abandon, Hanson was forced to deepen his rotation and lean on his entire team as both players finished the game with four fouls, totals matched by other key in-the-paint help defenders in Bourcier and Pat Simon.
“Brody is one of the toughest, if not the toughest in all of U Sports,” said Hanson in homage to the player he knows will be a bull when Game 2 tips off tomorrow. “With his size, strength and the way he is so relentless, we had to make a commitment to play team defence, and that is the best job we’ve ever done clogging the paint.”
That hot start, coupled with right defensive mindset was the perfect environment for guard Jadon Cohee to do his thing, and he scored in almost every way imaginable en route to a game-high 20 point performance.
Simon was sublime throughout, the senior playing the best basketball of his life. He scored 18 points, hit three treys and grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds.
And off the bench, making Hanson’s largely eight-man rotation as tight as a drum were guard Isaiah Familia, and forwards Jonah Morrison and Grant Audu. The trio together logged over a quarter of the 200 total player minutes with 54, combining for 13 points, eight rebounds, and most critically, just three combined turnovers.
UBC led 31-25 at the half, at which stage they had held Clarke to just 1-for-4 shooting from the field.
Yet freshman forward Adam Paige, still under a year removed from wearing his Semiahmoo high school jersey, played like a season vet.
Paige hit three key triples, finishing with 12 points, his second dart from distance cutting UBC’s lead to 40-37 late in the third quarter.
Golden Bears’ point guard Tyus Jefferson then took his turn, scoring his team’s first eight points of the fourth quarter, including a coast-to-coast lay-in with 7:56 left that pulled Alberta back to within 53-51.
Part way through Jefferson’s run, however, point guard Bourcier started one of his own, scoring all nine of his points over a stretch of 4:42, highlighted by his willful, penetrating dribble-drive handle, which for all intents and purposes, decided the game.
Bourcier’s driving lay-in, followed by a Simon triple made it 68-58 with 2:17 remaining.
Simon then put the exclamation on the win when he took a perfect skip pass in the paint from Bourcier and slammed it home.
“Alberta ran a couple of sets that focused on Manroop and Jadon, to try to take them out of the game, and when they did, the middle opened up,” said Hanson of the space Bourcier took advantage of. “Those were great reads from our second-year guy. He was aggressive and when we needed him, he put us on his back.”
Of course the universe can change with one sleep and Hanson know it all too well, that a desperate Alberta team will be even tougher to try to compete with on Saturday. Their best combo mix of Clarke, Paige, Jefferson, Andre Kelly and Brandon Meiklejohn, and their superior overall team depth, will all play on everything the ‘Birds have to give.
“The second one is always tough,” Hanson said. “Their backs are against the wall. They lost Game one (against Lethbridge) last week and still won.”
Canada West will get two automatic berth to the U Sports Final 8 national tournament, thus the winners of each of the conference’s two semifinals will be bound for the nationals.
Calgary, a potential No. 1 overall seed, swept its semifinal series Friday with a 117-77 win over the Saskatchewan Huskies.
Game two of the UBC-Alberta series tips off at 6 p.m. Saturday, with an if-necessary contest going Sunday at 4 p.m.
Besides Canada West’s two national tourney berths, the OUA will also get two, while the AUS and Quebec get one each. Host Dalhousie is already in, and one wildcard invitational will also be extended.
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