Game One: Scarborough Shooting Stars vs Niagara River Lions
The Scarborough Shooting Stars survived an early onslaught from the Niagara River Lions and controlled the latter part of the game to take a 93-81 victory in the first of Friday’s semi final contests.
Playing in a rare neutral site game, the River Lions were able to lean on newly crowned MVP Khalil Ahmad early. He scored the team’s first 7 points and found AJ Davis in the corner to get his team off to a 10-2 run that would eventually balloon to 20-6.
The length of Niagara’s guards caused some serious problems early for former Toronto Raptor Jalen Harris. The star point guard hit just one of his five shots in the first quarter and was -14 in the frame.
With Harris on the bench, the Stars were able to put things together and pulled the game to 26-14 going into the break.
When the second quarter started, there was a complete reversal of fortune for both teams. Scarborough was able to pressure Ahmad and completely through him off his game. The River Lions offense then came to a screeching halt, which allowed the Shooting Stars to crawl back into the game. Kam Chatman led the way as they were able to tie the game up and went into the half trailing by just 2 with the scoreboard reading 35-33 Niagara.
The third quarter was the beginning of the end for the River Lions. While EJ Onu continued his hot shooting in the post season, hitting all 5 of his three-point attempts after finishing the regular season below thirty percent on low volume, it wasn’t enough to match a rejuvenated Harris and his teammates. The ex-NBA player found a second wind after shooting just 2 for 11 in the first half, making 6-of-12 shots in the second half. He also stuffed the stats sheet with 8 rebounds and 6 assists, setting up Chatman and team Canada staple Kassius Robertson often in the latter part of the contest. They finished with 22 and 19 points, respectively. Onu recorded 26, while Ahmad finished with 23 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists.
Overall, the Shooting Stars outscored their opponents 60-46 in the second half, and 87-61 after their slow start.
“I thought we did a good job putting our imprint on the game to start, then the same problem we’ve had all year rose up after that,” Niagara head coach Victor Rasso said post game. “We get complacent, don’t always play aggressive… careless decisions, really. We had a game that we should have blown open by 20 points in the first half, and we allowed a really talented team to get comfortable.”
“I don’t want to take away from them – they’re a really good team,” he continued. “I talked about it before, that might be one of the most talented teams to ever play in the CEBL. That’s the truth. I didn’t big it up beforehand, but you got some serious basket players over there. I blame us for that (loss). And that is what’s going to sting; that was fully in our control.”
Scarborough head coach Chris Exilus said that his team’s ability to stay composed and focus on their own play was ultimately key in pulling out the win.
“I believe as a leader of this team, they look at me,” he said. “If I’m not composed and not able to make those right decisions, everything is going to be rattled. We also have really good high level professional players who understand this game is four quarters. Basketball is a game of runs – they had a great run in the first quarter, but we made sure to stick to the game plan, and it all started with defence.”
Game Two: Ottawa BlackJacks vs Hamilton Honey Badgers
In the marquee matchup of the night, the hometown Ottawa BlackJacks welcomed the number-one seeded Hamilton Honey Badgers to town. Despite the disparity between the teams in the standings, they actually split the season series at one game a piece, with Ottawa recently putting up a season high 104 points against the league’s front runners.
Much like we saw in the first two contests featuring the teams, this was a physical, tense, chippy affair between two teams that you can’t help but get the sense don’t like each other. It was a tight one throughout, but the visiting Honey Badgers were eventually able to hang on to the victory, 76-72.
It was actually Ottawa that got off to a hot start early and led the majority of the game. A 14-2 run to close the first quarter saw them head into the break with a 20-12 lead. With both teams battling in the paint, it was the BlackJacks who were able to make the opposition pay by getting – and making good on – trips to the line.
The second quarter was more of the same, with neither team really able to find any sort of offensive flow. Both shot under forty percent from the field in the first half, with the BlackJacks making just 29.4% of their shots. Still, they did enough on the other end of the floor to take a 37-34 lead into the half.
The longer the game went on, the more it became apparent that whichever team managed to get a hot shooter first would walk away with the win. Unfortunately for the BlackJacks, they were without Johnny Berhanemeskel and Jackson Rowe as they both were summoned overseas by their club teams, leaving them without two of their better long-range threats. On the other side of the court, Christian Vital, Koby McEwen and Aaron Best started to find their groove, and the Honey Badgers began to pull away. They took a 57-55 lead going into the final quarter, and would stay in front for the rest of the game.
The BlackJacks would close the gap to the tune of a 63-60 scoreboard with Elam time drawing near, but back to back baskets by Hamilton would kill any momentum the team had ahead of the final four minutes. While the home team fought hard in their comeback push, a three-pointer from Best deflated the crowd late and Caleb Agada would end things at the free throw line.
Despite the heartbreaking loss, BlackJacks head coach James Derouin still chose to look at the positive outcomes from the season.
“Over the last couple of weeks, seeing this group bond together, it felt like we were building something,” he said. “Whether this game was going to come down to a foul… that’s maybe one of the takeaways the league has to look at. Honestly, I’ve had 12 days to think about this game, and somewhere along the line this week, it hit me that there’s a lot of positives going on around this organization and this league. Somebody has to win. I know that we’re always obsessed with the winning and losing, but I think everyone is winning here. It’s a showcase for these kids, they get the opportunity, this is a great basketball community and it was a great environment for a great game today. I’m excited to see what happens next.”
Honey Badgers head coach Ryan Schmidt was quick to admit that it wasn’t easy coming into a hostile environment and pulling out a big win. He credited the guys on the floor for their perseverance in a tough situation to stick with the gameplan they had lay out, even when things got tough.
“There’s not a lot to say, it was on display,” Schmidt said of his team’s tenacity. “It’s something you’ve seen all year from our group. It’s a team. We’ve got a really good team. You look at the boxscore and the balance, different guys hit big shots. (McEwen) hit a ton of them. We’ve been talking the last few days and before the game about, embrace the moment, don’t get caught up in the moment. We know we’re playing a very tough team on their court with their fans. The game didn’t go our way in a lot of ways with the whistle, but their grit and perseverance really stood out to me.”