Returning from a disappointing 0-2 road trip, the Ottawa BlackJacks played host to the Fraser Valley Bandits for the second and last time this season. In a rematch of a game from a week prior, Ottawa was able to learn from their mistakes and reverse fortunes, earning a 90-84 victory. The win snapped a 3-game losing streak to give the BlackJacks some breathing room from the bottom of the standings.
How did they do it? How do they keep the momentum going? I’ll try to answer all those questions and more.
The Gang’s All Here
Saturday’s game marked the first time the BlackJacks had their full roster of players available to them. Johnny Berhanemeskel and Dominque Archie recently joined the team after finishing their seasons in France. Berhanemeskel – an Ottawa native – played in the last home game against Hamilton but didn’t join the team on the road while he dealt with personal matters, while Archie made his debut in the first game against the Bandits.
Their inclusion meant the BlackJacks were finally able to show what they are capable of, and boy, did they. Archie provides – among many other things – another big body that can play down low with Nick Ward. It gives the interior defense something else to worry about, which opens up Ward for better shots. The Michigan State big-man was able to take full advantage, scoring all of the team’s point as they started out on an 11-3 run.
“He can play big, and he’s got that versatility, which is great,” Coach Dube-Brais said of Archie after the game. “He can be a pick-and-pop guy, he can roll against switches and take his man down in the block. He forces defenses to adjust and keeps them on their toes… He makes the right reads, he gets Nick to score buckets inside with the drop-offs, he kicks it out on the perimeter, he finds people, he talks on defense. A lot of these little intangibles he brings to the game add up.”
When the defense started to collapse inside to slow Ward down, it was Berhanemeskel’s turn to go off. He hit all 3 of his three-pointers and finished the quarter with 13 points. He would finish with a game-high 24 points, shooting 7-of-14 from the field, including going 4-for-9 from deep.
Ward would finish with 17 points and 6 rebounds, but foul trouble limited him to just 22:30 of playing time. Archie had another big night, scoring 16 points, grabbing 7 rebounds and dishing out 4 assists. Junior Cadougan offered some firepower off the bench, scoring 10 points, including hitting all 3 free-throws after getting fouled to end the game.
Kadre Gray had a second straight tough outing, shooting just 2-for-8 to score 6 points. He was able to help the team in other ways though, ending the night tied in game-highs with 7 rebounds and 5 assists. While he was able to show how effective he can be as the first or second option on offense early in the season, the addition on new players means he’ll have to adapt to being the third or fourth on some nights. The rebounds and assists help, but he’ll have to find a way to be more effective shooting. Fortunately, given his attitude and basketball IQ, I have no doubt he’ll figure it out.
Peaks and Fraser Valleys
Looking to rebound off their first loss of the season, the Fraser Valley Bandits failed to repeat the success they had the last game against the BlackJacks.
The once vaunted rotation of the Bandits failed to get rolling for a second straight game. While 5 players finished with double-digit scoring totals, no one was able to keep a sustained hot streak going, with the exception of Shaw Keith in the second half.
After being held off the scoreboard in the first two quarters, Keith came out guns blazing in the second half, scoring 21 points on 8-of-14 shooting. Alex Campbell finished second on the team with 13 points, but shot just 4-of-12 and 3-for-10 from three. Marek Klassen and Malcolm Duvivier had 11 points a piece, but combing to shoot 6-for-17 (35.2%).
Keith spoke after the game about how he was able to turn things on coming out of the break.
“Just kind of seeing the flow of the game. We saw how we came out in the first quarter; we were a little bit slow, weren’t getting to the free throw line as much. I just tried my best to get those mismatches from different spots. Tried to put some pressure on the team.”
Coach Dave Singleton also had high praise for Keith after the game.
“He’s a super talented player,” Singleton said. “He’s somebody that is kind of trying to find his rhythm back into basketball; it’s been a whole year since he’s played. As a staff, we’ve been very happy to see what he can do on the court, and we have to keep trying to find the right spots to get him in. He’s earning his minutes right now, so he’s going to keep playing.”
The Bandits also had a new piece in the lineup since the last team the teams met in the form of Justin Leon. The former Florida wingman had a solid night, posting 10 points to go along with 5 rebounds. However, after the Bandits started the season 4-0, they dropped to 0-2 with Leon in the lineup. Coach Singleton said it’s all a matter of finding out how to best utilize all of the players available to him.
“We have to find out what works. I know the first 4 games of the season, we kind of stuck to our lineup, even moving Marek out and Alex in. But it is hard to implement a new guy and having him get used to everything. It’s been a while for him playing, as well. But I thought this road trip did help him in many ways, to get him acclimated with everything and kind of get him comfortable here. I expect his best basketball moving forward, and we have to look to bounce back on Wednesday.”
The Ottawa BlackJacks were able to impose their will early in the game, exemplified by Nick Ward scoring the first 11 points for the team. On the defensive end, the team was able to keep everything in front of them and prevented the Bandits from getting their dreaded transition game running. Forced to play in the half court, Fraser Valley shot only 4-for-14 in the opening quarter, while Ottawa finished 11-for-21 to take a commanding 31-13 lead into the break.
Coach Singleton felt that his team not being able to start out on the right foot is what ultimately led to their demise.
“I thought it was early on in the game. You can lose games in one quarter. It thought that was the determining factor was the first quarter. It’s an uphill battle from there. We’re trying to find the right rhythm and lineup throughout the game to kind of get us going and get us back in the game, and we did, But again, it’s a lot of energy you have to use in order to comeback. I thought it was a little bit too late.”
The Bandits were able to make some corrections throughout the game that helped them narrow the gap, and even briefly took the lead in the fourth quarter. However, to the BlackJacks credit, they too made the proper adjustments and never allowed the runs to get too far out of hand like we saw in their first meeting. When the Bandits do go ahead, they didn’t panic like we’ve seen in previous games, and were able to get their own run going which led to the victory.
Led by Shaq Keith, the bandits were able to have their best quarter coming out of the half. However, 7-foot center Brandon Gilbeck would get called for his fourth foul early in the third quarter, which forced him to sit out the majority of the second half. That proved costly, as the BlackJacks were able to take advantage of the size discrepancy between the teams and give Ward a rest until they needed him late in the game.
“That’s where the togetherness comes in,” Keith said about the team not getting frustrated by fouls. “It gets tough, especially on the road. This is our first test, and I’d rather be going through this now than later on in the season. It’s a long but short season. We just go back to the drawing board and try to implement that togetherness in those tough moments and try to bring it together, and hopefully we’re on the other end of it next time.”
As for Ottawa, Coach Dube-Brais said it was ultimately the physicality and grit that he’s been preaching all season long that got them the victory.
“I think it’s just a matter of playing with force,” the BlackJacks coach said. “I think we started the game playing tough, ball pressuring, being in our gaps, and making life tough for them.
“But once we started playing with force again, like at the end of the day it’s about players making tough plays down the stretch… like Kadre hitting the floor or Junior getting that jump ball off the offensive rebound that they were trying to get… We started to rebound the ball a bit better, maybe dominated a little less physically like we were in the second half. Guys made plays and Junior iced it up with the free throws.”
Next up for the BlackJacks is a meeting with the Guelph Nighthawks. It’s a big game, as a win will give them plenty of separation from the bottom teams, while a loss leaves them just one game ahead.
If Ottawa is able to start out like they did last time against Guelph or against Fraser Valley, a win seems like a safe bet. But with the Nighthawks now having Chad Brown clogging up the center, that will be easier said than done.