It was far from the best way to end a successful regular season.
The UBC men’s basketball team had already locked up first place overall in the Canada West before their home-and-home weekend series with the University of Victoria Vikes, so the results did not really mean much in regards to the standings, but the games still were vital for the ‘Birds. With the Vikes being the first playoff-calibre team that UBC had faced in many weeks, the games would show if they were ready for the upcoming playoffs. And if the games were any indication, it would seem that they still have some work to do.
The Thunderbirds dropped both games to their island rivals on the weekend, falling 91-86 at home on Friday night and 74-71 in Victoria on Saturday. Both games saw UBC struggle to contain Victoria’s hot shooting, and featured late minute charges that ultimately came up just short. They weren’t exactly bad efforts put forth by the ‘Birds, but they were ones that typically won’t cut against stronger playoff teams.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys that haven’t been in these shoes before, and it’s quite a learning experience,” said UBC head coach Kevin Hanson after Friday’s game. “On paper the game doesn’t mean anything, but psychologically you don’t want to have a performance like that, especially in front of your home crowd. I thought [UVic] outworked us, I thought they got on the floor more [and were] tougher than us.
“Offensively we competed in the second half, but we just didn’t get after it defensively. There was far, far too many mistakes, especially for this time of year.”
UBC undoubtedly deserved their first place finish and the honour of home-court advantage throughout the entire playoffs – their final regular season record of 18-4 is an impressive one – but the two losses this weekend raise a concern that has been troubling throughout the entire year. While the T-Birds have easily handled the lower-calibre teams that litter the Canada West, they have had troubles against the better squads. And since those top teams will be in the playoffs, that might be a glaring issue.
The four losses this season for the ‘Birds have all been close ones; the total margin of defeat this season is only 18 points. But their victories over top teams have also come by slim margins. It took overtime for UBC to take down Winnipeg – granted the ‘Birds only dressed eight players, many of whom were ill – and wins over Saskatchewan and Fraser Valley were by three and five points, respectively.
However, the case can be made that these close victories show that UBC is capable of closing out those games in crunch time. After all, a win is a win, and the good teams are the ones who can win in a variety of fashions, be it a blowout or a come-from-behind effort over a tough opponent.
But one such instance where the killer instinct was lacking was against Alberta, a team that the ‘Birds will square off against in next weekend’s first-round playoff series. UBC lost by two points to the Golden Bears on the road, missing five shots in the final 22 seconds. After that game, though, UBC would win their next 12 games before facing UVic.
Alberta was also the team that knocked UBC out of the playoffs in the first round last year, but the scenario has changed significantly since the last time the teams faced. Jordan Baker, one of the best players in the country, has been injured for over a month now, and his status for next weekend is uncertain. Without their star forward, the Golden Bears have struggled mightily, losing their last five games and falling from first in the Prairie division all the way to fourth. With UBC also playing in the familiar confines of War Memorial Gym, the ‘Birds appear to be in much better shape compared to their last meeting.
It will take a quick turnaround to put the UVic games behind them and move on, or else UBC may suffer an early playoff exit for the second straight year. However, the young squad will now know what it takes to succeed on a high-pressure stage – the weekend’s games were as close to being playoff matches without actually being them – and since they have adapted quickly all season, there is little reason to believe that they can’t do it again.
“There has been times this year where we’ve had to make [key] plays, especially late in the game, … but we just didn’t do the things we needed to do and the end, especially to get the stops,” said Hanson in regards to his team’s late push on Friday night. “We’d make our run, but we got content again as opposed to getting another stop and another stop.
“It’s a good learning experience, and hopefully the boys will learn from it.”
The ‘Birds know what they have to do now, and there’s no excuses right now for not showing up come game day. There’s a reason that they’ve been ranked second in the nation for the almost the entire season, and now it’s time to prove that they really are that good. It’s time to show that they can take down the big boys.
Game one of the three game series goes Friday night at 8 p.m. in War Memorial Gym, with game two going Saturday night at the same time and place. If necessary, game three is on Sunday at 4 p.m. The winner of the series will move on to the Canada West Final Four that is hosted by UBC, and the top two teams there will receive a berth to CIS nationals in Ottawa. There is also one at-large berth that is awarded nationally, meaning that a third team could potentially go as well.