It’s the quarterfinal result UBC had hoped for — just a year later than expected.
With a convincing 106-74 win over the Manitoba Bisons on Thursday night, the Thunderbirds punched their ticket to the Canada West semifinals on Friday with a 97-72 win at War Memorial Gym.
Last season, the T-Birds were in an identical position going into their quarterfinal series: ranked third in Canada West based on RPI and facing the seventh-ranked Manitoba Bisons. They each had their star players: Canada West’s leading scorer Conor Morgan and fellow veteran Jordan Jensen-Whyte in the blue and gold, and Justus Alleyn in the brown and gold.
The two-game series was unbearably close last year. A first loss of 75-79 put the ’Birds a step behind in the series, and a gut-wrenching 96-98 overtime defeat sealed their early playoff exit.
This year, Morgan is at the helm the UBC team, while Canada West leading scorer Justus Alleyn is once again at the forefront of Manitoba’s offense. It’s almost an identical storyline, but this year it was all in UBC’s favour.
Redemption was sweet as the ’Birds turned the tables on their old nemesis with two straight wins — and they were nowhere near as close in score.
Even so, UBC head coach Kevin Hanson said it wasn’t the easiest of wins for his team on Friday.
“Any kind of team that their back is against the wall, they’re going to come out with a lot of fire... They're always going to come out [and play hard].”
From the get-go on Friday, the depth of UBC again played to their advantage as not only their usual scoring suspects but other starters put up big points early. Taylor Browne was the driving force in putting the Thunderbirds ahead as he sunk four three-pointers in the first and ended the quarter with 14 points in total.
“I’m the type of guy, I shoot my shot. First one goes in, I’m feeling good, and these guys on my team know that I can hit consecutive threes and they always find me the ball,” Browne said of his big opening quarter.
For Manitoba, Justus Alleyn made his reappearance on the scoreboard after a fairly quiet night on Thursday — a welcomed revival for the Bisons as the rest of the team seemed less confident in shooting range. Several shots bounced off the rim of the basket, to the frustration of the visitors who still weren’t grasping the rebound game they lacked the night before.
“When someone’s a leading scorer in the conference — he had eight last night — you know he’s going to come back and odds are he’s going to have a great night. We predicted it and we just kept putting different guys on him to just kind of tire him out,” Hanson said of Alleyn.
Alleyn finished the night with 24 points.
That said, the visitors picked up their three-point game back to their usual range as Canada West’s leading three-point team. Through the first three quarters, they were 10 for 18 outside the arc. James Wagner and Rashawn Browne also upped their game after shaking out the early nerves, helping the visitors close in on the home side.
On defence, Manitoba started to find their stride as they shut down the towering T-Birds forward line, crawling towards a 34-42 deficit by the end of the second.
The Bisons would crumble from then on though, as T-Birds’ Grant Shephard, Luka Zaharijevic and Anthony McNish took advantage of the rebounds beneath the basket to shatter any defensive stability the visitor’s had been fostering.
The first half would end with UBC up 42-34.
In the third, strong defence for the T-Birds would only continue to widen the point gap, as the lack of depth for the Bisons again started to show. With Morgan and Jalalpoor keeping the Thunderbirds organized defensively and setting them up on the break, the speed and organization of the T-Birds side started to prove too much for the visitors to compete with.
“I thought we got a lot of good things from our guys that came off the bench, so I think our depth was a really big deciding factor in that game,” Hanson said.
“They have to play their top guys [for] lots of minutes, last night and tonight, and we went 12 [players] deep both games and I think that’s been a strength of ours throughout the season. It’s really good to get a lot of production out of our bench, so I’m really happy for everybody.”
With a crowd-pleasing dunk from Grant Shephard, the teams would finish the third with UBC up 76-63. From there, the creative play in the key for the Thunderbirds would be too hard to surmount for the Bisons in the fourth.
The ’Birds ran down the clock with quick passing plays baffling the tiring Bisons defense. Going into the final minutes, the comfortable 97-72 lead for the home side gave them some room to give rookie Parker Simson alongside Patrick Simon and Izaiah Ugoalah a run out before the final buzzer.
A last-ditch attempt from Manitoba’s Rashawn Browne from three-point range would just about sum up their night — the ball bounced off the rim and into the hands of UBC.
With the final buzzer, the T-Birds closed out a two-game sweep in the Canada West quarterfinals with a 97-72 final score, sending them on to the semifinals next weekend while Manitoba heads home empty-handed.