by Kim Elliot and Brett Hedges
The Lance – Sports Intern and Sports Editor
After narrowly escaping elimination from the 2015 NBL playoffs, the Windsor Express have locked horns with the Halifax Rainmen for the coveted NBL Championship.
After two physical battles at the WFCU Centre, the series is tied 1-1 heading into a three-game stretch in Halifax beginning Apr. 23.
The Express out-muscled the Rainmen 113-104 in the first contest of the seven game championship series Apr. 9 but lost the second battle 100-93 Apr. 11. Windsor, having the better overall recorded of the two teams, hosted both opening games on their home turf at the WFCU arena before 1,000 plus supportive fans, but must now travel to Halifax, Nova Scotia for the next three games where the Rainmen will have the upper hand emotionally.
Holding out hope for his team to press on while out East, Express general manner Dartis Willis said the team has put themselves in a position to be successful.
“They have begun to gel as a team toward the end of the season,” said Willis. “Which is also good for our franchise, as people begin to take things seriously when you do things in twos.”
Express head coach Bill Jones shared Willis’ optimism of the team after the first two games.
“We have really skilled players, all-stars and even the league MVP,” said Jones. “So all that was necessary for them to go out there and play together as a team.”
The first half of game one was rather uneventful by Express standards, as Windsor earned a comfortable 28-22 first quarter advantage and lead by 15 mid-way through the second quarter before settling for a 58-51 half time lead. The Rainmen dominated on the glass offensively to earn several second scoring opportunities and defensively they denied the Express some opportunities to do the same. Halifax was also more foul prone in this game and sent the Express to the free throw line 28 times in the first two quarters, where they converted 86 per cent of their free throws.
The fouling trend continued in the third and fourth quarter with two Rainmen eventually fouling out of the game, as well as Express big man DeAndre Thomas. In total, Windsor sank 33 of 42 free throw attempts, which was offset by Halifax scoring eight more two-point field goals and one more three-point field goal to keep the game in range. Amid the fouling spree, a few of them flagrant, Halifax strong man Liam McMorrow was injured while defending his basket and was taken away from the court on an ambulance stretcher, with a suspected neck injury. It was later confirmed McMorrow suffered a concussion and his status for the remainder of the series is up in the air.
Express team captain Chris Commons led all scorers with 33 points followed by Tony Bennett’s 25 points. Quinnel Brown, who was named NBL MVP of the regular season, scored 22 points while Ryan Anderson had 11 points. Five players for the opposing Rainmen also tallied double figures. Pedro Foster lead all Halifax scorers with 15 points.
“We still have a few star quality players on this team, even though I gave a star quality performance scoring wise tonight it is something I or any other player on this team needs to do every night,” said Commons. “Unlike the players on our team that play a gritty Chicago style of basketball, I’m from Toledo, Ohio where we play more of a big ten style of ball – characterized by sharing the ball and execution.”
Game two was a much different story, as Halifax got out to an 8-0 lead and never looked back, leading by as many as 24 points in the third quarter. The Express made a push in the fourth quarter and cut the deficit to five points, but were unsuccessful in closing the gap, allowing the Rainmen to tie the series at one a piece with a 100-93 final score.
Jones said it is a new series now that the Express missed an opportunity to take a 2-0 lead heading into a three-game stretch in Halifax.
“We lost home court advantage so we have to go out there and win games,” said Jones. “We’re not going out there to try and win one game we want to win all three against a tough team that plays well at home.”
Jones said the team’s job is tough now but their experience in last season’s NBL Finals against the Island Storm, where they trailed 3-1 but roared back to victory to claim their first championship.
“We understand the severity of the situation,” said Jones. “We just have to go out there and get a win. We’ve got the heart of a champion, we’ve gone this route before in our Brampton series, we pulled it off last year. We just have to stick together and hopefully we’ll be able to get one and guarantee that we come back home so we can defend our home court advantage.”
Games three, four and five will be played Apr. 23, 24 and 26 at the Halifax Metro Centre. Games six and seven, if necessary are scheduled for Apr. 28 and 30 at the WFCU Centre.