Coming off dropping both contests in what amounted to an extended home-and-home for them, the Ottawa BlackJacks will once again look to right the ship, this time against Niagara in the first of a true two-game series.
The BlackJacks fell to 0-3 at home and 1-5 on the year with an 83-73 loss to the Guelph Nighthawks. Though they were able to keep MVP favourite Cat Barber to just 3 points, TJ Lall, Ahmed Hill, and Barber’s G-League teammate, AJ Lawson, were able to step up, scoring 13, 15, and 25 points, respectively.
Things weren’t all bad for Ottawa, as they were able to keep the game close for the majority of the contest. Still, they couldn’t close out when it mattered most, and are still in desperate search of just their second win.
Against Niagara, they’ll find themselves in tough against a team with no shortage of skill, depth, or continuity, with 5 players returning from last year’s squad.
The Niagara River Lions have thus far had an up-and-down season, but still have their head above water at 5-3. That can be in part attributed to their schedule, as they’ve feasted on weaker teams while struggling against teams higher in the standings. Though they are 2-1 in their last 3, those wins came in the form of a one-point victory over the winless Newfoundland Growlers and a win over a Montreal Alliance squad that managed just 64 points.
Early MVP contender Khalil Ahmad has come back down to Earth after his stellar start, but players like AJ Davis, EJ Onu and Jaylen Babb-Harrison have found their footing to help even out the scoring output. Phil Scrubb has also made himself a welcome addition.
Niagara is a deep, talented team that plays the exact kind of style that Ottawa has struggled to defend against so far this season. The BlackJacks have looked better on that side of the floor since James Derouin took over head coaching duties, but they’ll need their best performance of the season to pick up a win on Saturday.
The BlackJacks found themselves in a familiar position Thursday night, doing enough to stay in a game, but not enough to pull out the victory. While typically it has been the defense that has let the team down, it was the offense that struggled against Guelph.
Though Walt Lemon Jr. led the way with a strong 25 points performance, Jackson Rowe was the only other play to reach double-digits, ending the night with 12. In particular, the shooting guards struggled again – a recurring theme this season – with Cody John and Bernard Thompson combining to go just 4-for-20 shooting on the night. The team also left far too many point at the free throw line, hitting just 11-of-21 from the charity stripe.
“At the end of the day, they got some elite shot makers, some elite offensive players, and our offensive players – other than Walt – couldn’t match their shot making,” Derouin said. “Every time we had a shot clock situation where it’s winding down… it felt like every time we had the clock down, they stuck a huge shot from the corner.”
The team sorely missed Deng Adel, who sat out with an injury that caused him to be pulled from the previous matchup against the Nighthawks.
“That’s a big part,” Lemon Jr. said of his fallen teammate. “You’re taking away twenty plus points a night, and what he can do on the defensive end as well. That’s a big piece we’re missing, but like I said, we’re here together; we’re a team. One man out, we all got to do more. It’s not just one player. It’s not all about D.A or me or nobody. One man out, everybody else got to do more on the court.”
This is a big series for both teams. For Niagara, it’s a prime opportunity to break away from the pack and cement themselves near the top of the standings as the season approaches the halfway point. On the Ottawa side, the River Lions are a team that has shown weakness, and this might be their best opportunity to pick up some wins as they try to prevent themselves from being the laughing stock of championship weekend by showing up with a sub-500 record.
Lemon Jr. said that the teams has taken steps in the right direction lately, and they need to continue to build on what little positives they’ve had.
“We’re showing signs of getting better on the defensive end and the stuff we work on in practice, and it’s starting to translate into the game, but it’s not enough. We just got to keep building. We showed signs of playing good defense and helping one another on both sides of the floor and just bringing that energy, so it was good signs, but like I said, we got to perform.”
“You lose, you got to come in and work. That’s all it is,” he added. “Especially after a loss, you got to bring it. It’s easy to come in after a win and everybody is feeling good, but when you lose, that’s when you can see if you’re a man or not, if you can take losses. We just got to respond. It’s my job on the team to just respond. Learn from what we did today, those positive things that we did today, and keep building on them. That’s the best we can do.”
The BlackJacks are quickly losing time to salvage the season. The Growlers failure to launch has kept them out of last place, but Ottawa is only one game ahead of them (though they do hold the head-to-head tie breaker so far). While they are guaranteed a spot at championship weekend thanks to their hosting duties, sneaking into the playoffs on a bye when you would have otherwise been eliminated is a terrible look for the franchise and the league as a whole. Hopefully Adel can make a speedy return from his injury and help right the ship in the immediate future.