The Ottawa BlackJacks are ready to get back at it again as they host the Guelph Nighthawks for their last regular season home game of the year. They’ll look to carry the momentum of their 82-69 victory over the Saskatchewan Rattlers in their last game with them, but they’ve had a 9-day break since they last played.
This will be the rubber match between the BlackJacks and Nighthawks, as Ottawa won the first meeting 96-79 for their first victory of the year, before dropping a painful 90-87 loss in Guelph. Whoever loses the tie-breaker will be afforded an immediate chance to earn it back however, as this is also game one of a home-and-home.
Who has the advantage coming into this crucial game? What does it mean for the playoff picture? Let’s try to make sense of it all.
Both teams will take to the court on Wednesday night with their playoff spot secured. Saskatchewan’s loss to Edmonton on Monday guaranteed that they’ll be the lone team outside of the post-season for the second consecutive year after winning the inaugural championship in 2019. Ouch.
That doesn’t mean these final games don’t mean anything, however. A win here for the BlackJacks means they’ll lock up the fifth-seed, which is a big deal. That means they’ll face the Fraser Valley Bandits in the first round, who are reeling hard as of late, dropping 5 of 6 after starting the season 4-0. The sixth seed will have to face either the Hamilton Honey Badgers or Niagara River Lions, who both appear to be playing their best basketball down the stretch and have legitimate title aspirations.
The BlackJacks are actually still in the running for the fourth seed, but it would likely require them winning out, plus hoping the Bandits continue to spiral.
While it would be easy for the BlackJacks to lose focus of what’s in front of them with the playoffs on the horizon, Kadre Gray said that the team is staying on task by just enjoying what they’re doing.
“One of the motives for myself that I try to carry throughout the team is just, have fun with this,” he said after practice on Sunday. “We’re playing basketball at the end of the day. This is a game that a lot of us start playing when we’re young, and we forget that because we’re in a professional environment. But you got to have fun with it. I think when you’re having fun with the game that you love, you’re going to play your best basketball. That’s what I’m trying to carry out through the team.”
This two-game set with be the third and fourth time these teams see each other this year. It’s the only 4-game series Ottawa plays, while Guelph also saw the Honey Badgers four times (going 0-4).
Having already faced Guelph twice this season, Ottawa already has some idea of what they can expect to see on Wednesday. Gray said that the coaching staff has been putting in the work to get the team prepared for whatever the Nighthawks throw at them.
“Obviously, the coaching staff is great setting us up with the tape and stuff that we need to prepare ourselves for that game. Things like zone and different stuff that they showed us. Going through it in practice so that way we’re used to it so when they throw it at us, we’ve seen it before. I think we know what we got to do. It’s business in the last three games. Just take care of business, have fun, and I think we’re ready going into the playoffs. We’re ready for a special playoff run.”
Busy Medical Staff
No team has failed to live up to expectations as much as the Nighthawks. They came into the season as favourites to push the Edmonton Stingers in the defense of their title. Now, they find themselves with a 3-9 record, only making the playoffs thanks to a poor showing by the Rattlers (though Guelph is the only team Saskatchewan has beaten all season). A large part of that has been due to injuries.
Justin Jackson, Isaiah Reese, and Mo Walker – to name a few – have all spent significant time on the shelf. On top of that, Cat Barber and Kimbal Mackenzie have missed a few games but have played through injuries for the entire year. It’s almost amazing they’ve been able to field a team at all.
For the most part, the BlackJacks have been lucky enough to avoid the injury bug. A few players have been held out a game every now and then – and Nick Ward missed the last game but is expected to play against the Nighthawks – but for the most part, it’s been smooth sailing.
The only player to miss consecutive games this year was Gray. He sat out the road trip against Hamilton and Niagara, but returned against the Rattlers to drop 18 points and 9 rebounds. Gray – the team’s second-leading scorer – also returned to a group of unfamiliar faces after all the movement before the transaction deadline.
“I think for me, just being able to see the guys coming in and the new talent that we got, seeing them fill in, it was easy for me to kind of pick up because I had the opportunity to watch them and see what their strengths and stuff are. So, it was easy. It was easy coming back into the flow of things, just trying to fit in and play basketball, and at the end of the day just have fun with it.”
A large part of the injury woes for the Nighthawks has been that they’ve been unable to find consistent complimentary scoring because of it. Barber and Ahmed Hill are both top-10 talents in the league, but they haven’t found anyone else to contribute outside of them. Michael Bryson has looked like he’ll be able to fill that role in his 3 games since joining the team, and they’ll need him to continue his hot shooting if they want anything other than a quick playoff exit.
The return of Ward and how he looks will be the determining factor on the Ottawa side. The Nighthawks are a team without a true center after the departure of Chad Brown, and the BlackJacks will look to take advantage of that. Dominque Archie and Ryan Wright did an admirable job of filling in against Saskatchewan, but they didn’t have to worry about keeping up with the scoring threat of players like Barber and Hill.
The BlackJacks have really come into their own as a team as of late. Players like Wright, Tyrell Green and Junior Cadougan are finally fitting into their roles, and they’ve been aided by the addition of players like Negus Webster-Chan. That depth – and the support of another sell-out crowd – should be enough to push the BlackJacks to victory for their first winning streak of the season. If they do pull out the win, the question then becomes if they can keep that momentum rolling on the road and into the playoffs.