VANCOUVER — Kevin Hanson has had enough post-season disappointment over the last number of years that he wasn’t going to sugar-coat his emotions.
“I have not felt this great about basketball in quite a few years,” the UBC Thunderbirds head men’s basketball coach said Sunday afternoon over the phone as his team prepared to board a victorious flight home from Edmonton with not only a berth in next week’s Canada West championship game against the host Calgary Dinos on tap, but most importantly, a berth in the U Sports national Final 8 championship tournament March 8-10 in Halifax now assured.
“We’ve had some tough luck, but today especially, winning on the road in a Game 3, for all of us just puts an extra level of accomplishment on everything,” Hanson continued after the ‘Birds beat the host Alberta Golden Bears 84-78 in the deciding game of its best-of-three conference championship series. “I’ve never had more confidence in a group of guys to take care of business.”
After opening with a 74-62 win Thursday, but falling 92-86 on Saturday, UBC was stout and cohesive down the stretch drive of the game, and symbolically, the two veteran NCAA Div. 1 transfers the team brought In over the off-season to help get them over the hump, came through with flying colours.
It seemed fitting, in fact, that both Jadon Cohee and Manroop Clair, former B.C. high school stars, took turns helping the ‘Birds clinch their first earned berth to the national tournament in nine years by each logging 35 minutes and each scoring 21 points.
A runner by Cohee with 35 seconds left in the game gave UBC an 80-78 lead. Clair then stepped up the free throw line four times over the final 21 seconds, and sunk all four to make the six-point win complete.
In Cohee’s case, a slight tweak against what UBC saw from Alberta the first two games, allowed the Southern Utah transfer to be at his most effective, and his late runner was emblematic of just that.
“The first couple of games, he took too many outside shots and tonight he got a lot more penetration,” said Hanson. “He got into the paint to make plays and then every single guy stepped up.”
From Clair, Hanson got the not only intensity, but productivity when it mattered most.
“Manroop, he has so much confidence in himself,” said Hanson. “He wants the ball and he wants to make shots. You saw it at the end of the game, when he made all of those free throws.”
Hanson rode his starters harder than he has all season long, and given the stakes it was no surprise.
From point guard Mason Bourcier (five points, five assists, two steals) at the top end with 38 minutes, to Cohee and Clair with 35 minutes each, to forward Grant Shephard (18 points, eight rebonds) with 34, and senior swingman Patrick Simon (nine points, 10 rebounds) with 30, that was 172 of the 200 available minutes.
Yet Isaiah Familia, Cam Morris, Grant Audu and Jonah Morrison still combined for 10 points.
And if the ‘Birds were lulled into any sense of false security over the course of their regular season, winning back-to-back best-of-threes in the deciding game has given them confidence and an even greater thirst to keep their post-season streak alive.
Of course having to contend with Alberta’s inside force Brody Clarke for a total of five games over the past four weeks has done nothing but help them get their feet whet for the physicality that is sure to come at nationals.
“This series was a team effort and going in we wanted to be in the right frame of mind,” Hanson said.
“We trusted and we shared the basketball. Our defence was really good on Brody (4-of-12, 10 points). Pat Simon was physical and we were able to take things away.”
UBC last played in the national championships back in 2016 when the ‘Birds were an automatic qualifier by virtue of they host status. UBC last qualified for nationals back in 2013 when it won the Canada West championship.
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