The Hamilton Honey Badgers are CEBL champions after holding on for a 90-88 victory over the Scarborough Shooting Stars.
For 36 minutes, it looked like Hamilton was going to breeze through to the title. They beat Scarborough at their own game in the first half, then completely shut them down heading into Elam time.
What followed will perhaps go down as one of the biggest “what ifs” in the history of Canadian basketball. Trailing 89-71 with the Honey Badgers needing just one point to seal the victory, the Shooting Stars came all the way back to make it an 89-88 game. Just when it looked like they had all the momentum on their side, a questionable call on Isiaha Mike sent Caleb Agada to the line to stave off defeat. It was a rather anticlimactic end to one of the greatest games of basketball you’ll ever see.
“You don’t end the game like that,” said Scarborough head coach Chris Exilus. “All due respect to Hamilton, they played a fantastic game, they did a good job…
We’re talking about a championship… In my opinion, you let two teams battle. We came in and we battled all the way through and you don’t end games like that.”
For Hamilton, it is the first championship for the franchise after coming up short in the finals of the inaugural CEBL season.
“It was fitting that we won it that fashion,” Hamilton head coach said after the game. “Our group is resilient; they persevere through a lot of different things and tough moments. At the end of the day, we found a way to get a win. It was fun. A little tense for a second, but to be honest with you, I didn’t have any doubts.”
The energy from both teams was apparent early, as each side got off to a hot start that relied on running the floor in transition. While that style of play would usually benefit the much longer, more athletic Shooting Stars, it was the Honey Badgers who led 26-25 after the first, thanks largely in part to Jeremiah Tilman Jr. The big man was able to use his size inside to dominate in the paint and clear lanes for his teammates.
That advantage continued into the second quarter, where the Honey Badgers would continuously lob the ball up towards the rim and use their athleticism to beat the Stars to the basket. Agada, Tilman, Christian Vital and Aaron Best were simply too strong or too fast for Scarborough to contain. The Honey Badgers went into halftime holding a 51-44 lead.
The second half saw the style of game change completely. Hamilton slowed the contest to a grind, which was much more indicative of the way they played all season long. It showed in the boxscore, as after both teams shot over 50 percent through the first two quarters, Scarborough hit just 4-of-15 shots (27 percent) while Hamilton shot 8-of-19 (42 percent) in the third quarter.
The Honey Badgers were firmly in the driver’s seat heading into the Elam ending. They were up 81-64 and appeared to have sucked the life out of the Stars. But as we’ve seen before, anything can happen with the Elam ending.
“It’s just one stop at a time,” said Kassius Robertson, who finished with a game high 23 points along with 6 rebounds and 5 assists in the loss. “We know how it is when we have Elam to win the game. It’s a lot of pressure, especially when you start turning the ball over like they did and miss a couple shots, it’s just one stop at a time.
I think we let them win the game. That was definitely our game to win, for sure.”
For the second straight game, the final shot came down to Agada, a former Gee Gee who spent five years at the University of Ottawa. While getting booed by his former hometown crowd was a new experience, he still managed to stay composed when it mattered most.
“It’s not the first time the crowd got involved and didn’t want to see us win,” said Agada, who finished with 12 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists. “We have faith in ourselves, faith in our coach, we have faith in the whole organization. We just did what we do normally.”
As far as Finals MVP Christian Vital was concerned, the mentality that the teams has going into every single game is what allowed them to lift the trophy at the end of the night.
“Give them their credit, Scarborough, they made us earn it at the end,” he said after recording 17 points and 5 boards. “When you wake up, you got to wake up thinking no one can guard you.
“Every game we’ve gone into, I felt like we were the best team,” he said after recording 17 points and 5 rebounds. “The only way we don’t win is if we allow ourselves to lose. Not in a cock or too confident way, but that’s the work we put in. We gained that confidence from the work that we put in from preseason, from camps, from the obstacles we faced throughout the year.”