Men’s basketball turns heads in playoffs

Gaels manage upset win over U of T in quarterfinal, fall to powerhouse Ravens

Gaels guard Jonathan Daniels looks on with concern from the bench.
Gaels guard Jonathan Daniels looks on with concern from the bench.
Journal File Photo

After finishing their regular season sixth in the OUA East with a 6-16 record, the men’s basketball team faced a considerable challenge as they entered the playoffs over Reading Week. On Feb. 22 the Gaels traveled to Toronto and faced off against the U of T Varsity Blues, who sat third in the division with a 16-6 record.

Despite being clear underdogs in a lopsided matchup, the Gaels shocked their favoured opponents with a 64-56 upset.

Trailing just once in the first quarter, the Gaels stole the lead for good early in the second and took a 31-23 lead with them into halftime. The Blues managed to tie the game at 47 with six minutes remaining, but the Gaels fended off their opponent’s desperate comeback attempt and secured the first-round victory.

Guards Jordan Balaban and Simon Mitchell led the Gaels with 13 points each, while forward Brendan O’Leary contributed 11 points in the Gaels’ well-balanced offensive effort.

Neal Dawson returned to the lineup after missing five games with a knee injury and proved to be an important factor in the victory, adding nine points and grabbing 11 rebounds. The 6’10” center was the team’s leading rebounder and second leading scorer in the regular season, and his timely return was key in the upset.

Despite being well under .500 on the season, head coach Rob Smart said his team was not as much of a long shot as their record suggested.

“We played very well the last three weeks of the season,” he said. “I think that by the end of the season we were as good as any team in our division, outside of Carleton.”

Smart said the team’s victory over U of T was directly related to their well-balanced approach to the game and added that while they received typically good performances from their leading players, everyone else stepped up their game as well.

“I think that in a lot of ways we’re the ultimate team,” he added. “When we play well, everyone sort of does their thing.”

Veteran guard Alex Liang said that everyone in a Gaels uniform came ready to play and that the team really pulled together against the Blues.

“I thought it was a great game. Everyone contributed to the win,” he said. “That’s how we did it in the past—inside, penetrating, shooting threes. We were focusing on Toronto, and had prepared for what they had executed all year.”

After making it over the small hill that was U of T, the Gaels prepared to face the daunting mountain of Carleton in the OUA east semifinals. The Ravens are ranked first in the nation after finishing their season with a 20-2 record.

The Ravens dominated the Gaels from the start en route to a 77-43 dismantling of this Cinderella story.

However, losing to the nation’s best team is hardly an embarrassing defeat, and the Gaels remain optimistic about the future.

“There is a good a chance a number of players will be [graduating],” Smart said. “But the nucleus remains. We were a much better team at the end of the season than we were at the beginning.”

Liang is one of the players who have played their last game in the tri-colour jersey. He said he is proud of what the team accomplished this year and added that the future is looking good for the Gaels.

“The foundation is there, we have some good guys and we can definitely put something together,” he said. “With our new coach [Smart], we have a good block to build from. We just have to establish expectations and establish the culture. Expect us to be pretty competitive in the top tier sometime soon.”

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