Two of Canada West’s leading scorers butted heads for a marquee matchup in the Pioneer division this weekend. Jarred Ogungbemi-Jackson and the 11-4 University of Calgary Dinos were in town to take on Tommy Nixon and the 9-5 Thunderbirds.
UBC, arguably the hottest team in Canada West after having won eight straight games, was in no position to dote over their recent success. Clinging to the final playoff spot in the Pioneer division with the end of the regular season looming, and playing host to the number one seeded Calgary Dinos -- this weekend’s story was a best seller before the opening tip.
And it did not disappoint.
The energy on the court seemed to reflect the significance of the game to both teams, as fans were treated early in Friday’s game to a frenetic pace of play. Bodies crashed into each other violently for every loose ball; fastidious coaches threw down their clipboards and wore out their voices; the crowd roared at a deafening volume. After trading baskets for the majority of the quarter, the visiting Dinos held a small 27-23 lead.
As has been known to happen in the world of sports, the abundance of energy in such a competitive environment translated into hostility. Things got ugly in the second quarter. First, UBC’s head coach Kevin Hanson received a technical foul while disputing a controversial non-call against his team. Minutes later, Calgary’s Matt Letkeman was handed a flagrant foul, followed by another technical foul assessed to Calgary’s head coach, Dan Vanhooren. Capping off what was surely UBC’s most rancorous quarter of play this season, Calgary’s LJ Hegwood was ejected for pushing UBC’s Conor Morgan after the former was hit with a questionable blocking foul. The crowd serenaded Hegwood as he left the building.
There was also some basketball played. Entering the break, the Dinos led 48-41.
“They were playing very physical,” said UBC’s assistant coach, Vern Knopp. “The game was getting a little chippy, and we just told our guys that we need to show some restraint and be the more disciplined team, so that we don’t put ourselves in a situation where we have a player getting kicked out or suspended for tomorrow’s game. It was tough, but you have to be able to control your emotions.”
While the wave of technical and flagrant fouls dissipated in the third quarter, the superlative level of play did not. UBC slowly chiseled down Calgary’s defence until the visitors’ lead was no more. With less than a minute to go in the quarter, UBC’s Tommy Nixon, who entered the weekend as Canada West’s leading scorer, finished a layup while absorbing heavy contact from a Calgary defender. Nixon took the free throw line to the sound of “MVP” chants from the home town crowd. Though he missed the free throw, Nixon knocked down a mid-range jumper at the buzzer next time down the court, leaving both teams deadlocked at 68.
A neck-and-neck race to the finish seemed the only just way for this narrative to end. With 1:00 left in regulation time, the Dinos led UBC 88-85. After a massive defensive stop, Nixon tossed a lob pass to UBC’s second-year guard, Kedar Wright. Wright drove to the rim and was fouled hard by Calgary’s Lars Schlueter, who was slapped with a flagrant foul on the play. Wright hit one of two free throws, and due to the flagrant foul, UBC kept the ball. On the ensuing possession, UBC’s Morgan knocked down an enormous three pointer to put the ‘Birds up 89-88. Calgary responded with a basket of their own, only to be matched by two clutch free throw shots by Wright.
With UBC’s Tonner Jackson on the free throw line, a 91-90 lead, and 5.1 seconds left to play, UBC looked to have the win locked up.
Ogungbemi-Jackson, Canada West’s second-leading scorer, and Calgary’s most dangerous offensive weapon, did not.
Jackson hit one of two free throws to put UBC up 92-90. Ogungbemi-Jackson received the outlet pass after Calgary rebounded the missed free throw, frantically dribbled up the court, and pulled up for an off-balance, fadeaway three pointer from well behind the three point line. The high, arcing shot flew through the air, hit the back board and tickled the mesh as it passed through the rim. A speechless crowd read the scoreboard with disbelief. Calgary 93, UBC 92.
Knopp spoke of Ogungbemi-Jackson after the game.
“We actually did one of the better jobs on him than any other team has been able to do this year. It was really just a matter of knowing where he was at all times on the floor. A couple of times in the second half, when he got loose, he was wide open because we just didn’t communicate. There are times when you have to rotate and leave him, but the next guy has to know where he is, so that he’s not getting open looks like that.”
Like others in attendance, Knopp seemed stunned with what had just occurred, but was already looking forward to the rematch to be played the following day.
“It’s cliché, but our backs are against the walls. We’re fighting for a playoff spot. They’re in first place in Canada West for a reason. They didn’t lose their composure when they fell down, and a great player made a great shot at the end of the game. We just have to talk to our guys, refocus. Tonight’s game is over now. As soon as we leave the gym, it’s over.”
The high energy, high-tempo style of play continued on Saturday. The high scoring offence did not. Call it bad shooting, or good defence, both teams failed to capitalize while they held the ball in the first quarter. Still, the visitors obtained an early lead, 19-16.
The second quarter of play was the Nixon vs. Ogungbemi-Jackson show. UBC’s Wright was dealt the challenging task of defending Ogungbemi-Jackson, and despite his commendable play, Ogungbemi-Jackson lit up UBC for 20 first half points. On the other end, Nixon was as a wizard, which is all UBC has come to expect from their fifth-year leader. Nixon ended the half shooting 9-13 from the field for 19 points, and UBC led 41-40 after two quarters.
Nixon continued dominating on all ends of the floor in the second half. The veteran forward finished with a game-high 32 points and 10 rebounds.
“He’s just in the zone right now,” said UBC’s head coach, Kevin Hanson. “He’s been playing unbelievably well. He’s certainly scoring and putting those numbers up, but also playing great defence for us. He’s doing a lot of things that people don’t see. He’s embracing the moment right now, and it’s nice to see him shine in front of the home crowd.”
I was foolish enough to think that this game was a wrap when UBC led 79-67 with seven minutes to go in the game. Fittingly, Calgary clawed themselves back into contention. With 2:15 left to play, and an 87-86 UBC lead, Saturday’s game was no less of a nail biter than Friday’s.
In the final minute of the fourth quarter, Morgan managed to knock the ball loose from Ogungbemi-Jackson’s grasp, and toss a lob pass to Wright for the layup, which put the ‘Birds up 89-86. Ogungbemi-Jackson took revenge during the next play. The all-star knocked down two high pressure shots from the charity strike to bring the Dinos within one point.
With 23 seconds remaining, the Dinos were forced to foul. Unfortunately for them, they couldn’t avoid putting UBC’s own all-star on the line. Nixon looked like he believed himself to be the only person in the gym as he took the free throw line. He knocked down two of the game’s biggest free throws to put the ‘Birds back up by three. That was as close Calgary would come. The final score: 93-88 for UBC.
“I’m just happy with the way that we executed down the stretch tonight. It was a real gut check game after last night. That was one of the toughest losses we’ve had as a group, and that I’ve had as a coach. Defensively, I thought we did a pretty good job tonight. Ogungbemi-Jackson is obviously one of the best players in the country and he showed that this weekend,” said a relieved Hanson.
The road to the playoffs continues next weekend in Regina for UBC. The 7-9 University of Regina Cougars, a team eager to nip at UBC’s hold on a playoff spot, will host the ‘Birds in what looks like a gem of a matchup.
“We’re facing a team that had a bye week this weekend, which means they’ve had lots of time to scout us out. They’re all important games, and I think the way the league is structured, it’s very difficult to really understand the difference between one through seven in the Pioneer division. It’s getting down to crunch time with a couple of weeks left. We’re just trying to focus on ourselves, and play better basketball,” said Hanson.