by Kim Elliott
The Lance Contributor
The overlooked and underrated Lancer men’s basketball team were led by graduating senior Alex Campbell and overcame the odds to win two straight play-off basketball games and claw their way back into the OUA Wilson Cup Final Four.
A wild week for interim head coach Ryan Steer and the Lancers began with a 82 – 73 win over the Laurentian Voyageurs in the preliminary round of the OUA playoffs at the Dennis Fairall Fieldhouse Mar. 2. Three days later, Windsor knocked off the CIS’ fifth-ranked McMaster Marauders, 79-78, in Hamilton for the team’s 11th straight victory. Windsor now advances to the final four, hosted by the Ryerson Rams at the Mattamy Athletic Centre in downtown Toronto Mar. 11 and 12.
For Campbell, who scored 37 points against Laurentian and followed up with 33 over McMaster, getting back to the final four was a statement to the rest of the OUA.
“Ultimately, it was about revenge,” Campbell admitted. “They counted us out once again with the loss of a couple players and our head coach. But we continue to fight through adversity and pull out important games. It’s a good feeling.”
In their opening game, Windsor got a career-high 37-point, 10 rebound double-double outburst from Campbell but struggled against Laurentian ball screens, which forced second half defensive adjustments for the Lancers, who trailed 36-37 at the half. The Voyageurs, who were the 12th seed in the provincials, racked up 16 points in the paint with seven second chance points and four points off of turnovers in the first 20 minutes of play alone.
“For the team it was a matter of more team building, because for a lot of our younger players this was their first play-off win so I was excited for them,” said Campbell. “Our offense fell flat in the 2nd half, so as a fifth year senior the weight fell on my shoulders to help us get the win.”
Campbell scored 21 of the Lancers 36 points in the first half and went on to score 16 more in the second but fortunately for Windsor, point guard Mike Rocca’s alley-oop dunk pass to Isiah Osborne to open the second half woke up the home town crowd and began to swing the momentum in favor of the Lancers. After 14 lead changes, Rocca drained a three-pointer in the fourth quarter to stop a Laurentian run, giving them a nine point lead and the cushion needed to cruise to victory.
Rocca finished with seven points and five rebounds while an additional 18 points came from Osborne with 12 points from Tyler Persaud and eight from Marko Kovac. The most important statistic for the Lancers was their 19 – 21 performance from the free throw line, which was instrumental in securing the win. David Aromolaran scored 25 points to lead three other Voyageurs who scored in double figures.
After his first career OUA playoff victory, Steer foreshadowed Windsor would need a gutsy effort to pull out a victory over McMaster and that’s exactly what he got three days later. From the opening tip, the Lancers rebounded well and ran with McMaster in transition, racing out to a 23-15 first quarter lead. McMaster was able to turn the tables on Windsor mid-way through the second quarter and eventually pulled them into a 40-40 tie at halftime.
The second half saw the two teams battle back and forth, trading baskets and defensive stops on each possession. Although McMaster made their push, the Lancers answered back to keep the fifth-ranked Marauders from taking the lead. Windsor held a seven-point lead with two minutes remaining, and although they committed some ill-timed turnovers in the final minute, the Lancers held on for the one point victory.
Once again, Campbell led the way with 33 points to lead all scorers. Osborne scored 18 points and Kovac scored 10 points in the victory while Persaud achieved an important 11-point and a 10 rebound double-double performance. Leon Alexander and Troy Joseph scored 18 and 10 points respectively as the only two players to reach double figures for the Marauders.
Rocca said the most important factor in Windsor’s victory over McMaster was the simple fact they played with heart and wanted it more.
“That’s what it comes down too,” Rocca admitted. “We executed our game plan to make them beat us in the half court and limited their transition points. I’m so proud of each player for the sacrifices they made all year and now it’s paying off. Nobody believed in us except for us and it feels amazing.”
When the game dust settled, the Lancers walked away with not only a redemptive upset but extended their season by at least two games and a shot at an OUA medal. First and foremost, Steer said his squad needs to get rested after playing four games in less than one week. From that point on – it’s all business.
“We will especially focus on winning the first game, that is the only way we control our fate in getting to the CIS Final 8 tournament,” Steer said. “We know both match-ups are against good basketball teams and we need to be ready for another spirited effort from start to finish.”
The Lancers will battle the host Rams in their OUA semi-final game Mar. 11 at 8 p.m., while the earlier contest features the Ottawa Gee-Gees and Carleton Ravens. The OUA bronze and gold medal games will be played the following evening at 6 and 8 p.m. While the Lancers have already beaten the Rams early in the 2015-16 season, both teams are very different and are much improved.
As for what now lies ahead, Campbell, the Lancers “silent assassin” said now that his first major goal of the season has been achieved, the opportunity to return to the MAC to face Ryerson, Ottawa and Carleton is something he does not take for granted.
“This definitely means a lot, especially under all the circumstances we’ve had to face,” Campbell said. “We were here last year, and to know that we have the opportunity to redeem ourselves is a blessing. I am very excited with the opportunity to lengthen our streak even more.”
It’s notable that although the Carleton Ravens have won 11 of the last 13 national McGee CIS Championships, the notorious Ravens head coach, Dave Smart has taken sabbatical and the last of his five year protege’s in Phil and Thomas Scrubb are not longer in the Carleton fold neither. If ever there was a seasonal moment that the University of Windsor was poised to win it’s first national championship in decades – this may be that moment in time.
It can only help that the current coach at the helm of the Lancer brigade was the starting guard for their last provincial championship in 2008 and like Campbell has more than just a missed opportunity at the provincial level on his mind.