Seven games on the road and zero wins to show for it. That’s how the Ottawa BlackJacks ended their regular season on Sunday, falling 89-79 to the Niagara River Lions.
Like we’ve seen for the majority of their road games, the BlackJacks were flat for long stretches and allowed their opponents to stay in the game and take over late. This game was especially concerning, since it was the team’s last chance to prove themselves away from home before starting a playoff run that will be spent entirely away from TD Place.
On paper, this was technically a meaningless game between the clubs. Niagara had already locked up the second-seed and a first round bye, while Ottawa couldn’t go any higher than sixth after dropping two consecutive games against Guelph. The tone of the game reflected that.
Neither team appeared to have a sense of urgency from tip-off. While younger players like Alain Louis and Jaylen Babb-Harrison got off to strong starts, the majority of either team seemed to be going through the motions. Despite the game being played at a decent pace, there was no real aggression or grit shown by either team. Ottawa made a couple of shots late to take a 19-18 advantage going into the second quarter.
The second frame was really just more of the same. Of note in the quarter, Louis – a guard – was constantly matched up against Olu Ashaolu – a muscle-bound forward – in the paint, and won the majority of their battles. It was an impressive performance from the young Montreal native, who will return to Carleton University this fall. On the Niagara side, Harrison got extra hot, scoring 7 points in the quarter. His performance, combined with yet another poor showing at the free throw line for the BlackJacks, helped them to a 40-36 lead at half.
The River Lions caught the BlackJacks especially flat-footed coming out of the break, starting off on a 12-2 run that saw them grab a plethora of offensive rebounds against an uninspired Ottawa team.
The tone of the game would soon change, however. Ward drove to the basket hard, getting his shot to go while also drawing a foul. While lining up his free throw, a River Lions fan got out of their seat and close to the court to get a photo of Ward. It should be noted that the last time Ottawa went down to Niagara, an observer was escorted out of the arena after hurling racist insults at then-BlackJack Dominique Archie. While it’s unclear if this fan said anything to Ward, the big man was none to pleased that this was allowed to happen in their very next visit. A technical foul was issued to Ward, but that Phil Scrubb free throw would be one of two points scored in a 13-2 BlackJacks run. Unfortunately, that momentum wouldn’t carry on for much longer, as the River Lions would get hot late to go up 69-57 after three.
Things would settle down in the fourth quarter, though the teams would go back and forth for the remaining 10 minutes. The Niagara lead was never in doubt, and they appeared to be content to coast their way to victory. Again, this wasn’t a game either team will look back on as a performance worth repeating, but the River Lions did what needed to be done to get a win in their season finale.
Limping Into the Playoffs
The BlackJacks will enter the postseason losers of 3 in a row and 5 of their last 6 games. It’s hardly the kind of run any team wants to be on as they enter a single elimination tournament. After starting the season 3-5, the BlackJacks were still poised to finish somewhere in the middle of the standings, with home court advantage in the playoffs still a possibility as little as 5 days ago. However, they managed to only claim a victory over the league-worst Saskatchewan Rattlers in the later part of their season, and now finish a less than lackluster 4-10.
Consistency has been a problem all year for this Ottawa squad, and that’s been even more apparent down the stretch. Ward hasn’t looked himself since coming back from injury. Kadre Gray opened up the season scoring at least 20 points in 3 of the first 4 games. He hasn’t hit the plateau since, averaging just over 10 points a game over the final 8. Tyrell Green has been perhaps the most consistent BlackJack all year long, but his consistency is being inconsistent. From game to game, Green is either the best shooter in the league, or virtually invisible.
It’s going to take multiple Ottawa players stepping up if they hope to make any noise whatsoever in the playoffs. Green scored 16 points to go along with 5 rebounds and 7 assists on Sunday. It’s the fourth time he’s scored at least 15 in the past 16 games. It’s imperative for him to continue to find that hot hand over – hopefully – the next 3. Ward also put up 16 points, and did so on a perfect 7-for7 shooting night. But, as we’ve seen a lot lately, he had long stretches where he was unable to get into the paint and generate anything for the team. Even when he’s not scoring down low, he’s usually able to draw numerous fouls to put the other team in the bonus early. The coaching staff has to figure out ways to get him inside more often in order to be successful.
Roaring Into the Postseason
While the BlackJacks have struggled late in the year, the River Lions have really got the ball rolling.
After starting out the year 3-3, Niagara has won 7 of 8 to take second place in the league and look like a real threat to the Edmonton Stingers’ crown. In the exact opposite of the BlackJacks, their consistency has been perhaps the most impressive aspect of their game.
Despite losing Javin Delaurier, Xavier Sneed and Tyree White to the NBA Summer League, the River Lions have been able to bring some new pieces in and work them into the lineup without missing a step.
Tommy Scrubb in particular has shone since joining the roster. The former BlackJack and Carleton Raven did it again on Sunday, scoring 15 points, 11 rebounds, 9 assists and 5 steals. Jaylen Babb-Harrison has been a scoring threat all season long, and put up another solid performance with 15 points. Guillaume Boucard led the way with 16 points, on an efficient 7-for-12 shooting night. Lloyd Pandi and Olu Ashaolu also reached double digits, and players like Phil Scrubb and Daniel Mullings are capable of doing so on any given night.
Regardless of who has been in their lineup, the River Lions have been able to get stops on defense and run the ball back the other way. With some many talented scorers on their squad, they don’t have to worry about who ends up taking the shot which allows for crisp ball movement and makes them almost impossible to cover on the break.
Niagara was able to put themselves in a position to control their own destiny down the stretch, and they did just that. They look like the last team anyone would want to be paired up against in the playoffs, and appear poised to pull off the upset.