Well, that couldn’t have gone much worse, could it?
In their first official home game at TD Place, the Ottawa BlackJacks failed to ever get out of first gear. The end result was a humbling 103-78 defeat from the hands of the Niagara River Lions. So, what went wrong? Let’s try to salvage the Blackbox from the wreckage of the plane crash that was Thursday night and get to the bottom of it.
This BlackJacks roster is filled with a number of veteran players, something the general manager and coach have both said was done intentionally. The belief was that with a shortened training camp and season, building a team with more seasoned players would mean they would be able to come together quicker than their opposition, which would give them a leg up on the competition. None of that held true during the first game.
The BlackJacks often looked confused as to who was supposed to cover who off the switch, and the offense didn’t appear to have any idea who to run plays through. It was apparent the plan was to get the ball to Nick Ward inside, but they didn’t have any clear plans to get him good looks other than just giving him the ball in the post.
“Its going to take time,” head coach Charles Dube-Brais said post game. “Nobody has the magic wand that you can throw at them. But at the end of the day, its all about heart and effort. It was likely to be not the greatest game in terms of execution on both sides, but you got to dominate physically, you got to fight for the 50/50 balls, you got to rebound the ball. They immediately set the tone by getting three or four offensive rebounds early in the first quarter… So, we got to clean up a lot of areas. We didn’t shoot foul shots well, we didn’t get the rebounds as I mentioned, our offensive execution was very, very poor which allowed them to be even more physical. We got to clean up our stuff. We didn’t come out with the best effort today.”
On top of that, it was obvious from the get go that the BlackJacks would struggle to keep up with younger River Lions squad even when their legs were fresh, and that carried through the entire game. Ottawa was killed in the transition game, struggling to get back on defense in time and failing to break past the pressure when they had the ball. The longer the game went on, the worse things got. After finishing the first half with 13-of-23 (56.5-percent) shooting, the second half saw them hit only 8-of-33 shots (24.2-percent) At the end of the game, the River Lions held definitive advantages in second chance points (16-8), fast break points (19-10), and points off turnovers (28-14), while also finishing with only 13 turnovers to Ottawa’s 23.
The River Lions had three returning players from last year’s squad on the floor (four in total, but Trae Bell-Haynes is currently away from the team) and the chemistry they developed over that time was apparent. They worked together as a cohesive unit to apply constant pressure and kept the ball moving all night. Despite that, Dube-Brais didn’t feel that was ultimately the deciding factor.
“Probably not,” he said. “Just intensity, generally speaking. They played a lot harder than us and that showed through this game. I think we have to get out of that ‘everything is nice’ kind of environment. It is nice, but we have to go out there and play harder than we did tonight. They deserve all the credit. They thought they could be more physical than our team, and they were from the beginning to the end.”
Even without their MVP candidate in, Jaylen Babb Harrison and Kassius Robertson torched the home team all night. Harrison – who had a season high 18 points against the BlackJacks last year as a member of the Honey Badgers – continued his success against the team, coming off the bench to score 30 points on the back of 8-of-11 shooting from deep. Robertson chipped in 21 points while hitting 8-of-10 field goals, including going 5-of-6 on three-point shots. Guillaume Payen-Boucard had a strong game with 16 points and 7 rebounds, while former BlackJack Lloyd Pandi got the nod to start at point guard and finished with a respectable 9 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals while hitting 3-of-4 shots.
I told you the kid was alright
On the Ottawa side, Kadre Gray – playing in his first pro game – came off the bench and got hot late, making the lopsided defeat somehow look closer than it actually was. He had a team high 25 points to go with a game high 4 assists, going 5-for-9 from the field (including 4-for-6 from three) and 11-for-14 from the line. Given the team’s end result, he still wasn’t satisfied with how things went.
“I think that we’re just trying to build,” Gray said. “It’s the first game of the year. We got lots to build on, lots of things to work on. I think I’m just part of the process, just trying to help the team get better. Just to be out there, be a leader and help anyway I can.”
“Honestly, I never worry about my individual stats. We lost the game, that’s the most important thing. We’re just going to have to get back to practice, work on our stuff. We learned today that this is a tough league. We can’t expect to just walk in here and expect to just win the game. We got to turn it up a notch. It’s all about team effort at the end of the day.”
Ward posted a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds, but shot only 7-of-15 from the charity stripe and finished the game a dreadful -34. Earl Calloway, the team captain, had the worst night out of anybody. He had 0 points while shooting 0-for-5 and committing 5 turnovers to his 1 assist, and fouled out after playing just over 17 minutes.
The one bit of respite the BlackJacks had was when coach Charles Dube-Brais called a timeout with the team trailing 15-8 in the first quarter and swapped in Ryan Wright for Ward. The veteran big man offered an immediate boost to the team, sparking a 9-0 BlackJacks run that eventually led to them finishing the first quarter ahead 22-18. He finished the night as the only player on the team with a positive rating (+9) and had 8 points on 3-of-3 shooting with 2 rebounds and 2 assists. However, Dube-Brais continually opted to go with Ward at the center position, and didn’t want to play them together fearing it would limit the teams spacing. Wright played only 9:32 in the game.
While the BlackJacks delivered a flat performance, that shouldn’t take anything away from the River Lions performance on Thursday. The team looked young, fast and hungry to put a disappointing Summer Series in the rear-view mirror. While they obviously can’t rely on Harrison and Robertson to shoot a combined 13-for-17 from beyond the arc every game, they can expect the rest of the team to do better than the 1-for-16 showing they had. To make things even scarier for their opposition, Niagara will get former BlackJack Phil Scrubb on their team once his season finishes in France, and reigning Bundesliga MVP could also join the team later on – after he finishes representing Canada in the Olympic qualifying tournament.
For the BlackJacks, the only bit of saving grace is that this happened in the first game of the season, and by the end of the weekend two other teams will join them with the same 0-1 record. They have to believe that more time training together will lead to the team and coaches knowing how to better utilize players and they will become more comfortable playing together.
There will also be help coming on the way. Like Niagara, the team is waiting for the French league to finish play so they can have Johnny Berhanemeskel and Dominique Archie join the roster. As well, former Ball State star Tahjai Teague didn’t dress Thursday, but his eventual presence in the paint could cause a lot of problems for teams trying to attack the rim.
Game one is in the books, and the BlackJacks and their fans are hoping for better things during the rest of the season. The talent is undoubtedly there, it’s just going to be matter of finding out who gels best with who and making that fit into the team’s system. Hopefully, before it’s too late.