by Brett Hedges
The Lance – Sports Editor
The sheriff is back in town and the two-time defending NBL Canada champions are hoping the return of their head coach from a 20-game suspension will propel them to a third straight league title.
Windsor Express head coach and vice-president of basketball operations Bill Jones had been serving a yearlong suspension, resulting from an incident with the Halifax Rainmen prior to game seven in last season’s league final, which led to Windsor being named champions via forfeit. In a release Feb. 20 the league ruled Jones’s suspension would be reduced to 20 games in the 2015-16 season after the Express filed a successful appeal to NBL commissioner David Magley and president Vito Frijia.
A 97-93 victory over the Niagara River Lions Feb. 19 was Windsor’s 20th contest, allowing Jones to return to the sideline after almost 10 months, accumulating a win-loss record of 96-56 since the franchise first entered the league in 2012-2013.
“It’s means a lot to me to be on the sidelines, basketball is my life,” Jones said. “After being here in Windsor for three years then having to sit out the first half of the season [is tough]. But I had to take my punishment, I understood the rationale and reason for it and now I’m better and I just need to move forward and direct the Express on the right path.”
After dropping a tight contest to the London Lightning two nights earlier on the road, Windsor rode the wave of emotion provided by their leader’s return to a 91-88 win at the WFCU Centre Feb. 21, their fourth over the league-leading Lightning this season.
Brandon Robinson led the Express in scoring with 23 points, followed by Chris Commons with 22 points. Alex Johnson had another double digit scoring performance with 17 points and five assists. Tony Bennett had a game high 13 assists and said with Jones back at the helm along with his brother Tony, who led the team to a 10-10 record as interim head coach and will now serve as an assistant, the Express are a dangerous team.
“Both of them are geniuses when it comes to this game. This definitely makes us stronger going into the second half,” Bennett said. “Bill brings a different kind of fire from a leadership standpoint and for me personally he’s like a mentor so that’s huge for me. Chris Commons and I were talking and we know some guys don’t know how it’s going to be. The intensity of a lot of things are going to change and I’m happy to see him back doing what he loves to do.”
Rookie Shaquille Keith was in the starting five once again for Windsor and put the Express on the board with a three pointer to open the game. The Lightning would struggle to take care of the basketball, as numerous turnovers led to as many transition points and the Express finishing the first quarter with a 28-17 lead. Windsor would extend their lead by as much as 17 points with an 8-2 run to begin the second frame and into halftime with a 48-36 advantage. Commons led all scorers at half with 14 points and finished the game with 22.
The Lightning battled back in the second half and tied the game at 65-65 with less than two minutes left in the third on a basket by Ryan Anderson. Both teams exchanged points but it was Johnson’s three point play and a Robinson’s jumper near the end of the third which gave Windsor a five point edge headed into the final frame.
After Windsor took a 73-65 lead both teams exchanged scoring opportunities. Nick Okorie’s jump shot for London brought the score one point with one minute remaining before Robinson made two free throws to extend Windsor’s lead. On the final defensive stand, once again it was Commons making a big play, blocking a three-point attempt by Akeem Wright with time winding down and seal the win for Windsor with a pair of free throws for a hard-fought 91-88 victory.
Stephen Maxwell had a double double for the Lightning, with 25 points and 13 rebounds. Warren Ward had 18 points of his own
The Express are back in action at the WFCU Centre Feb. 26 to host the Orangeville A’s with a 7:30 p.m. tip-off. The A’s have struggled this year but have scored two close victories over Windsor this year. Of their 10 losses, four have come by a single point.
“My brother did a heck of a job coaching this team under the circumstances but now it’s my job to come here and teach these guys what championship level basketball is, what Express pride is,” Jones said. “Hopefully we can transform that onto the court and win some of those close games which will help us achieve our goal.”