In the Post BlackJacks vs Honey Badgers

Well, you’ll probably never see another game like that again.

A COVID-19 outbreak connected to their last game against the Niagara River Lions left the Ottawa BlackJacks with a depleted lineup heading into their quarterfinal matchup against the Hamilton Honey Badgers. Already considered heavy underdogs even with their full roster, Ottawa was facing a Herculean task in front of them.

However, thanks to some heroic efforts and a masterclass in coaching, the BlackJacks were able to live up to the feat, claiming a 96-94 victory to keep their championship hopes alive.

How were they able to pull off the upset? Who were those guys in BlackJacks jerseys? What does this mean for their next game? Let’s look back on one of the greatest performances in CEBL history.

Bad News BlackJacks

The COVID outbreak meant the BlackJacks came into this game with just four regular roster players in their lineup: Kadre Gray, Junior Cadougan, Earl Calloway and Antonio Williams.

The rest of the squad was filled out with a complete mish-mash of players that GM Jevohn Shepherd deserves full credit for pulling together in less than one week. Those players were:

  • Joel Friesen, a former BlackJack who appeared in a couple of games this season before being released.
  • Chad Posthumus, a former member of the Saskatchewan Rattlers team that won the CEBL championship in 2019, who had not played a game since then.
  • Mike L’africain, a member of the BlackJacks coaching staff who had previously played at the University of Ottawa.
  • Darlington Osazuwa, who played one season of Division II basketball in 2015 and who I can’t find any other information on other than some cut reels.
  • Guillaume Pepin, who has been with the BlackJacks through the U SPORTS partnership but would be making his professional debut.
  • Jayden Frederick, a Ryerson University grad who just completed his first professional season in Georgia. His late inclusion was made obvious by the fact his name is spelt wrong on the CEBL website.

Despite having a team short on size and lacking experience playing with each other, the BlackJacks were able to come together in a short span of time and figure out a system that worked. That all started with getting the ball in Gray’s hands.

The first-year pro absolutely went off in his postseason debut, setting a CEBL playoff record with 32 points. He had been a key factor in what little success Ottawa managed to achieve in this season, and saved his best performance when it mattered the most. Any time it looked like Hamilton might get a run going, Gray was right there to answer back, whether it was scoring, setting up his teammates, or shutting down Lindell Wigginton on defense (more on that later).

But you can’t win a basketball game alone, and Gray got help from perhaps the least likely of sources. Posthumus – who, again, had not played a single game of professional basketball since 2019 – utterly dominated the paint for the entirety of the game. He set another CEBL record, grabbing 20 rebounds, and also put up 23 points on 9-of-10 shooting. The Honey Badgers had a smaller lineup than they are used to, and the 6-11 big man took full advantage of the size discrepancy.  

Calloway was able to stretch out his hot play as of late, scoring 14 points on 4-for-5 shooting. He has ridiculous range on his shot and was able to showcase that on Saturday, nailing a number of long threes to halt any Hamilton momentum.

Williams is an uber-athletic guard, and his speed and willingness to crash into the paint caused lots of problems for the Honey Badgers. He finished with just 10 points on 5-for-12 shooting, but his ability to get to the rim meant a Hamilton defender would have to switch on him, which gave Posthumus a better chance to grab the offensive rebound and score, which he did often. Little things like that went a long way in securing the victory.

On the defensive side of the ball, a large portion of the credit should be reserved for head coach Charles Dube-Brais and the rest of his staff. Literally every single time the Honey Badgers would start to get on a roll, Ottawa would call a timeout and completely stop all the momentum. Coming out of the breaks, the BlackJacks would have an entirely new look that the home team had no answers for, and the visitors would then proceed to go on a run of their own.

Most notably, the defense would constantly switch between zone and box-and-one, the same scheme the Toronto Raptors infamously used against the Golden State Warriors in the 2019 NBA Finals. While Toronto was trying to keep the ball out of Steph Curry’s hand, Ottawa was trying to limit the number of touches Wigginton received. The plan worked perfectly, as the MVP candidate was limited to just 14 points on 3-of-11 shooting. He spent long stretches without seeing the ball, and when he did get possession, he was immediately hounded until he was forced to give it to another teammate. It was simply a perfect gameplan thought up by Dube-Brais, and perfectly executed by players who had a very limited time to learn the system.

Sometimes You’re the Hammer…

This was supposed to be an easy win for the Honey Badgers. They had claimed victory in both regular season meetings between the squads, and were expected to run over a depleted lineup. But there’s a reason we play the game.

Things started off well enough for Hamilton, leading 19-14 after the first quarter. Ottawa looked very sloppy early, giving up a number of turnovers and forcing some bad shots from the outside. The Honey badgers were able to make them pay by scoring in transition and off offensive rebounds.

But once Posthumus got going in the second quarter, they quickly realized they were left without an answer. With Kalif Young gone from the team, they were forced to rely on Thomas Kennedy to defend the paint. The U SPORTS player was overwhelmed, and the combination of Nino Johnson and Kenny Ejim were unable to offer much help.

On the perimeter, the guards struggled mightily keeping Gray in check. They were forced to commit 12 fouls on the Laurentian University legend, which put them in the bonus early in every single quarter.

With Wigginton facing the brunt of the defensive effort, it was up to other members of the team to step up and lead the way in scoring. Despite getting a number of solid contributions, no one was able to take the reigns and truly lead the team.

Trevon Duval, the teams second leading scorer, had 14 points while shooting 6-for-13. Though that would be a good night for most, Duval was expected to be one of the stars in the league this year, and this was another game where he failed to reach that level.

Nino Johnson had his best game of the season, as he was able to put up 16 points on 5-of-9 shooting and grabbed 11 rebounds, including 6 on the offensive side. But for all he was able to contribute in the scoring department, his inability to slow Posthumus had an even greater effect on the game.

J.V Mukama finished the game with 12 points and 6 rebounds. More importantly, when it looked like the BlackJacks were about to run away with the game and take a 70-61 lead into the fourth quarter, Mukama did his best Reggie Miller impersonation and scored 8 points in about 30 seconds. Despite that, he shot just 2-for-9 during the rest of the game and failed to get anything rolling for an extended stretch.

Former BlackJack Kyle Johnson had perhaps the best performance for the Honey Badgers, scoring 15 points and shooting 3-for-6 from deep while finishing with a +15 rating. Cody John had 12 points off the bench, and Kenney had 7 points and 5 rebounds for his part.

Breakdown

This is a game that will go down in CEBL infamy. If the BlackJacks win the championship, they might even get a CBC TV movie about it.

It was the kind of game that had more momentum swings and jaw dropping moments than you would think possible. Every time someone was about to pull ahead, the other team would pull of an incredible feat to bring it back to even. Shout out to Junior Cadougan who, when it looked like Hamilton could seal their victory in Elam time, hit an incredible step back three with a defender in his face and the shot clock hitting zero to tie things up at 92.

It’s hard to tell what this will mean for the BlackJacks going forward without knowing how long they’ll be without their regular players. If they’re still forced to be in quarantine, it’s entirely possible the we see an even different lineup from Ottawa in the next game against Edmonton.

But what this did show us was the team is able to come together and execute a gameplan flawlessly, something we never saw during the regular season (even in the win over Edmonton the offense struggled mightily). Sure, they were still plagued by the usual suspects of turnovers and offensive rebounds, but those things can be written off due to the nature off a hastily put together team.

The BlackJacks have probably endeared themselves to fans of the CEBL all across Canada. Everyone loves an underdog, and it’s impossible to think over a bigger one than this Ottawa team.

There’s no telling how far their run will go. As we just saw, anything can happen in a single elimination tournament. But we also learned that regardless of when their season comes to an end, the BlackJacks are going to be entertaining throughout.

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