There’s been a recurring theme with the Ottawa BlackJacks all year long. Whenever you think they finally have it figured out, they come out and prove you wrong. You’d be hard pressed than to come up with a better example of that than Wednesday night’s game, where the BlackJacks put forth their worst effort of the season.
The end result was a 96-71 drubbing by the hands of the Guelph Nighthawks. It was far from the showing the team wanted to have in what could – and with that type of effort, will – be their last home game of the season.
There are no real questions to ask here. Let’s just look at everything that went wrong.
Guelph was able to stay in the game early in the first thanks to their 3-point shooting. The BlackJacks were able to force the shots to come from the perimeter, but the Nighthawks shooters were able to make them count. The BlackJacks would even things up when Matt Neufeld came out of the game. Guelph don’t have another big on the roster, and the BlackJacks were able to take advantage of their size in the paint. Dominique Archie and Nick Ward controlled the ball down low, and were able to account for 13 of Ottawa’s points in the quarter.
The second quarter started of much slower, with neither team being able to find their rhythm early. The first media called end a gritty 8-5 quarter. Coming out of the huddle, Matt Neufeld was able to take over down low, which limited the Ottawa offense. The Nighthawks were able to slowly build up a 38-29 lead, thanks mostly to Michael Bryson. The BlackJacks were able to slim it to 40-34 by half, but the offense still looked clunky and without a sole direction. Credit to Guelph for their team D inside to limit what the bigs were able to do.
The Nighthawks were able to find their shooting touch coming into the second half of the game. Olu Famutimi took over early, nailing a number of threes to extend the Nighthawks lead to 54-44. The BlackJacks offense had no answer for the swarming Nighthawks, and the quarter ended 67-53 Guelph. At one point, Michael Bryson even caught Ryan Wright sleeping and pulled off the old inbound-off-his-back play. And yet somehow, things would only get worse for the home team.
The final frame saw Famutimi, Bryson and TJ Lall all continue to hit their shots at will. Tyrell Green did his best to provide an answer for Ottawa, but every time it seemed like the BlackJacks would get some momentum on their side, the Nighthawks would respond with a big play on the other side of the court. By the time the Elam ending was in effect, it felt more like the basketball Gods were mercifully letting the game come to an end more than anything.
The Nighthawks came into this game without Ahmed Hill, who didn’t travel with the team. Hill had been one of the league’s best players – let alone the team’s – which should have meant that the BlackJacks would have an extra advantage.
The injuries woes only got worse for Guelph during the game, when Cat Barber – the team’s leading scorer – went down hard on the small of his back after driving to the basket early in the second half. Though the visiting team was down their best to players, the BlackJacks weren’t able to capitalize, and it even appeared to play to the Nighthawks advantage.
The recently acquired Michael Bryson took over offensively, taking 23 shots and scoring 25 points. Olu Famutimi also had his best game of the season, scoring 22 points, including 20 in the second half and shooting 8-of-11 from deep.
Head Coach Charles Kissi had nothing but praise for the players that stepped up in the absence of their leaders, most notably Bryson.
“He’s a pro basketball player,” Kissi said of his new star. “I always say that about these guys. He’s a really high-level basketball player, shoots the ball really well, brings great energy, is a great teammate. There’s a lot to say about his game. He just brings it. He didn’t have a great one the night before and he just bounced back and had a great one tonight. That’s what really high-level basketball players do, and that’s what they’re expected to do.
“You haven’t seen him all year, but that’s what he does. For those who don’t know Michael Bryson, welcome. That’s what he does. It’s new to us in this league, but this is what he’s been capable of his whole career. It’s why he’s going to be a professional basketball player for a long time.”
For his part, Bryson said that it is the team that had been built before his arrival that has led to his success. He said that from the players on the court to the management in head office, everyone has made him feel at home which has let him play his best basketball.
“You come to a lot of teams and there’s a lot of egos and trying to fight with when you come in,” Bryson said after the game. “You’re trying to set what you do and you’re trying to see what everyone else does. Between the players, the staff, and obviously the front office came down and really made this a very welcoming place for me.
“If I miss a shot, there’s no question as to whether or not it was the right shot. Whether it’s him or the last guy on the bench, their all telling me it’s the right shot. So that’s something that as a shooter, there’s nothing that could really bother you when you know that the shot you put up is the right shot.”
Stuck In First Gear
In short, this BlackJacks performance was flat, listless, and uninspiring. This was perhaps the biggest game of the season, and Ottawa did their best Easter bunny impersonation and laid a big ol’ egg.
Even in the first half when the score stayed close, it wasn’t because of how well the BlackJacks were playing. Sure, they were able to keep most of Guelph’s attack from the outside, but they looked comfortable playing from their and didn’t mind testing their range. The offense looked completely stagnant, with only Dominque Archie and Kadre Gray providing any sort of threat for the home team. They still shot below 40% during the first 2 quarters and there were clear signs that the game was going to get away from them.
Perhaps it was the nine-day layoff that the team had between contests. Maybe Nick Ward’s injury is more severe than the team is letting on and he was still feeling it a week and a half later (he certainly didn’t look like himself, struggling to get into the paint against a relatively inexperienced Matt Neufeld). At the end of the day, the team just looked soft.
“Just didn’t play hard enough,” Head Coach Charles Dube-Brais said post-game. “We kept losing 50-50 balls and giving up offensive rebounds. I think a lot of possessions came down to the final 7, 8 seconds of the shot clock where that final effort was always won by Guelph. So, we played decent for 15 seconds, but anytime they tried to get what they want, either they get it or they don’t get it but they get the offensive rebound after. I don’t think we showed up with the right sense of purpose tonight. That includes all of us. We need to throw that one in the garbage and get back to it in the next 48 hours.”
It’s also possible that the team may have even been over practiced. They spent the entire break preparing to play against a team that runs their offense through Barber and Hill. With both of those men out in the second half of the game, the BlackJacks looked unsure of how to guard anyone else.
“I think sometimes when a team is without a few key members, like they were without Ahmed Hill and then Cat Barber went down, that was actually probably the worst thing that could happen to us,” Dube-Brais said. “I think it played into our psyche that they didn’t have their guys and we’re going to turn it around and we’re going to end up winning, and we just didn’t make the effort to do it.”
“I don’t think anything that happened tonight is due to the gameplan or stuff like that,” he continued. “Not that I don’t take ownership, it’s just a matter of being ready to execute, and I think it’s all of us. Maybe it’s the way we deliver the message, or it’s them not understanding the message or not playing hard enough to execute it. But I think it’s kind of the same trap we fell into early in the Saskatchewan game. You kind of think that things are going to take care of themselves, and they don’t; not at this level.”
The BlackJacks aren’t going to be afforded anytime to sit around and sulk. They get right back into things, heading down to Guelph in what will be the Nighthawks last game of the regular season. A win will be absolutely imperative, as another loss means Guelph will leapfrog into fifth place and completely eliminate any hopes Ottawa has at hosting a playoff game.
A common phrase that was thrown about following the defeat was that they had to “throw away” this game. That’s easier said than done when it was something you’ve spent over a week preparing for. I don’t know how the BlackJacks are going to rebound from this, but they’ll need to dig deep and really test the leadership on the team.
The playoffs start Friday for the BlackJacks. Let’s hope they’re ready to actually show up this time.