LANGLEY — There was a sense of the surreal in the air Thursday night at the Langley Events Centre.
Just 96 fans, watching the first university basketball game held in the facility since Feb. 8. 2020, in what would officially be its smallest sell-out crowd ever.
No one else was watching because there was no livestream outside the arena, and inside, no one was quite sure how many points or rebounds anyone had because it was one of those rare occasions where individual player statistics were not being kept.
By the time they tipped it off, it all felt some big secret.
Yet leave it to the basketball gods to deliver a contest which, for those fans of Trinity Western men’s basketball fortunate enough to be in the gym to witness, will be talked about for a long time to come.
Yes, it was only an exhibition game in early October, but the Spartans’ unexpected 93-84 win over the powerful Calgary Dinos was, if anything, a huge sign that the locals, coming off an 0-22 season in 2019-20, are taking all the right steps in their re-build under third-year head coach Trevor Pridie.
“To me, it felt like the national championship game,” said Mason Bourcier, the much-travelled point guard who figuratively owned the 200th St. premises during his run with the Kelowna Owls, and on Thursday made his Spartans debut playing like that once again, taking his aggressive mindset to another level while also showing incredible chemistry with the team’s returning star in fifth-year senior guard Ja’Qualyn Gilbreath.
“COVID took so much out of us all and I went through a crazy personal battle, so to be here again, playing with a guy who I think is one of the best guards in the country… and to play at a such a fun tempo… it feels like a dream,” continued Bourcier, the former UBC and Carleton player, who in concert with Gilbreath and fourth-year newcomer Tre Fillmore, had Trinity Western up by as many as 25 points (51-26) with 3:22 left in the first half.
Pridie couldn’t help but espouse a positive vibe when it came to describing how well Bourcier and Gilbreath have come together in the back court.
“It’s early but they seem to really be clicking and they are going to be one of the most dynamic duos in this country,” said Pridie. “So far they really seem to be gelling. Both of these guys have proven that on any given night, they can be the best player on the court.”
Throughout Thursday’s game, there was pervasive feeling in the air — one which harkened back to the late-1990s Vancouver Grizzlies — that no lead was going to be large enough to stave off an opposition comeback, especially in this case, against a Dinos team, which while having graduated its star player in Brett Layton (20.3 ppg, 14.5 rpg), came to Langley with a roster which included what appeared to be its top seven returning scorers, including forward Mason Foreman (16.1 ppg) and guard Ezeoha Santiago (14.2 ppg).
With 1:11 left in the half, former Semiahmoo star Vlad Mihaila hit a triple to give the locals a 54-33 lead.
In the third quarter, back-to-backs dunks by former Walnut Grove forward Andrew Goertzen and Fillmore had the Spartans ahead 67-43 with 6:48 left in the frame.
But then the team’s star power ran into trouble.
Gilbreath fouled out at the end of the third quarter, Goertzen, whose blue-chip motor gave the Spartans a much-needed inside presence , followed with 6:41 remaining in the game, and then Bourcier exited with 2:15 remaining and his team leading 90-77.
Fillmore, Mihaila, and three raw rookies in Leif Skelding (Centennial), Mitch Morgan (Sir Charles Tupper) and the 6-foot-10 Connor Platz (Walnut Grove) proceeded to get the ultimate trial by fire, managing to play Calgary tough enough down the stretch drive to win the game.
“It was a nice test to see our composure and we got to play a bunch of freshmen late who have never played a game,” said Pridie, who was playing without two vital members of the rotation in guard Riley Braich (Yale) and forward Daniel Stead (Walnut Grove). “We lost three straight to foul trouble, and we almost threw it away. But we stepped up in the end.”
As he was forced to watch the game play out down the stretch drive from the bench, Gilbreath seemed as delighted about the way the inexperienced core protected the lead as anything else. Aware of the fact that changing the program’s losing culture won’t happen overnight, he took on a leadership role as he addressed the evening’s success.
“It feels good, but at the same time I told the guys ‘Don’t get too excited because we didn’t come into this game expecting to lose,’” he said. “We expected to win. I just feel like we worked for this and I feel like a lot of people under-estimated us. But we’re here and ready to make a statement this year.”
So very few got a chance to see that Thursday, but as a part of our basketball community’s return to normalcy this season, there will be plenty of chances for you to see for yourself.
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