In the Post BlackJacks vs Nighthawks

I’ll say one thing: when the Ottawa BlackJacks go to Guelph, they sure know how to make the game exciting. And to say another thing: they sure know how to throw away a game they otherwise should have won when they do it.

We saw it happen in their first trip to the Royal City, and it happened again Friday night, falling 89-85 in another loss to the Nighthawks.

Ottawa held the lead after 3 quarters and looked poised to pull away late in the game. But a series of bad mistakes and decisions in Elam time sealed their fate and dropped them to 0-6 on the road this year.

What does this mean for the playoff standings? How will the BlackJacks rebound? I know the answer to the first question. The second one gets tricky.

The Breakdown

The game started off with both teams trading three-pointers, with the Nighthawks getting off to an 11-10 lead before an Ottawa timeout. The stoppage allowed the BlackJacks to regather and come out much more focused on the defensive side of the floor. They slowed down the home team and Nick Ward was able to draw a number of fouls to put Ottawa in the bonus early.

Ward struggled in the previous matchup between the teams, and it was apparent the BlackJacks were looking for new ways to get the big man involved in the offense. The first quarter saw him grab defensive rebounds, and then proceed to carry the ball down the court on his own. It was unusual yet effective, as he finished the first with 7 points and 8 rebounds and Ottawa led 24-19 after the first ten minutes.

That would not continue into the second quarter, however. Charles Kissi and the rest of the Guelph coaching staff figured out a way to better protect the paint during the break, and the Michigan State alum spent most of the second frame on the perimeter. Fortunately for the BlackJacks, former Nighthawks Mamadou Gueye was able to go off in his first game wearing the Ottawa uni. He put up 9 points quickly and the visiting team was able to begin to pull away, building up a 33-25 lead before a Nighthawks timeout. This time it was the Nighthawks who looked much better on defense out of the huddle, and were able to spring a 10-2 run to tie things up. They would eventually end the half leading 41-40.

Ottawa started the second half poorly, to say the least. In short, they made a lot of dumb decisions shooting and passing and allowed Guelph to start building up a 54-49 lead. Calling another timeout, head coach Charles Dube-Brais opted to go with a veteran lineup of Earl Calloway, Junior Cadougan and Ryan Wright to lead them back into the game. The plan worked, as the team was able to grind their way back to finish the third quarter up 66-64. They had multiple chacnes to extend that lead even further, but they struggled mightily from the free throw line all game (shooting a meager 13-for-23).

The final frame was a highly entertaining back-and-forth contest that saw both teams trade blows until Elam time started with the score deadlocked at 80. With the score 86-85 Guelph, Ottawa had possession and the opportunity to put themselves one basket away from winning the game. However, the inexplicably decided to force up a number of 3-point shots, despite the fact that there was no benefit in doing so. They even managed to grab an outstanding 3 offensive rebounds in the final possession, but each one led to a long-range shot with lots of time left on the shot clock. They would go 0-4, which allowed the Nighthawks to get the ball back with a chance to win it. A foul on a Michael Bryson 3 would put him on the line, where he would ice the game for good.

Mo’ Elam, Mo’ Problems

When the BlackJacks returned home following their first loss in Guelph, one of the first things that a BlackJacks staff member said to me was that the team still looked unsure of how to handle Elam situations. They made a good point. The players are used to being able to play off the clock, and that often decides the tempo and plays they’re going to run. Normally, when they’re up or trailing by a wider margin, they go about business as usual. But when it comes to these kinds of “next bucket wins” scenarios, it’s new ground for most and they’re still trying to figure out what’s the best course of action.

Obviously, that’s something the BlackJacks still haven’t figured out.

There was absolutely no reason to force threes at that point in the game. None. Especially while leaving that much time on the shot clock. It was hero ball, but if the hero does something completely meaningless and superfluous. The wise thing to do in that scenario was work for a basket, give up anything other than a three on the other end of the court, and put yourself in a position to score the game winner. Ottawa did literally the opposite of that. That’s on the coaches as well as the players.

Losing on Friday night means the BlackJacks now fall to the sixth seed in the playoffs and will travel to Hamilton for their first-round playoff matchup. A win would have locked up the fifth-seed and would see them face off against the spiralling Fraser Valley Bandits, with home court still being a possibility. Losing such an important game in the way that they did is completely inexcusable.  

Any who, on to the bright spots for the team.

Mamadou Gueye made his debut for the team and looked fantastic. He filled in for the departing Dominique Archie, who has gone back home to Atlanta. Archie came to this team straight after finishing his season in France as a favor to GM Jevohn Shepherd. He didn’t need the experience or the money, but still played his heart out every time he put on the BlackJacks jersey. He now gets to spend some time with his family before returning back to France to play once again. Good on him.

As for Gueye, he finished with a team-high 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting, and grabbed 6 rebounds as well. Earl Calloway had the breakthrough game we’ve all been waiting for, scoring 15 points while shooting 6-for-10. And Alain Louis continued his hot run as of late, scoring 13 points and dishing out 6 assists.

Ward cooled down mightily after the first 10 minutes of play. He ended the night with 12 points and 11 rebounds, playing just 19:30.

Dube-Brais felt more comfortable playing Ryan Wright down the stretch, who, despite not putting up much on the scoresheet, did a lot of the little things that don’t go unnoticed. The game, combined with the one against Saskatchewan which Ward missed due to injury, showed that the team can perform well without him on the court. While they’re still definitely much better with him playing, it’s a good sign for the team going into the playoffs knowing that others can step up if need be.

Flying High

It sounds weird to say of a fifth-seeded team, but these Nighthawks could be a real problem in the playoffs.

Injuries and contract obligations played a large part in Guelph’s very slow start out of the gate (and really, all the way through the season up until now). They’ve always had Cat Barber and Ahmed Hill to carry the offense, but they struggled to get anyone else going or get consistent stops on defense. Enter Michael Bryson and Matt Neufeld.

Bryson’s shooting has been ridiculous since joining the league. He’s a threat from anywhere on the court, and he and Hill can shoot the lights out from deep while Barber slashes inside to get points in the paint.

Neufeld gives them size and a presence in the paint that they’ve been lacking since Chad Brown left the team. His offensive game has a tendency to come and go, but Ward – the consensus top big in the league – struggled against him in both games they’ve played. If he and the Nighthawks plethora of wings can slow down the opposing offense while Bryson, Hill and Barber take care of business on the other end? Hoo boy.

As for this game, Hill had a game-high 21 while shooting 8-for-15. Bryson chipped in 19, including going 4-for-6 from deep. And Neufeld looked the most comfortable he has all season, scoring 14 points on 7-of-10 shooting and pulling in 7 boards.

Those kinds of performances, combined with some solid efforts we saw from the rest of the team, have the Nighthawks looking as good as anyone going into the post season.

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