The Dinos men's basketball team played their first game of the Canadian Interuniversity Sport Men's Basketball Championship, or the Final 10, in Halifax, Nova Scotia against the McMaster University Marauders Fri., Mar. 19. Winning 74-66 was a great start, leaving the team optimistic about their semi-final matchup against the tournament favourite, the top-ranked Carleton University Ravens.
"J.R.'s there for a reason," said a smiling Dinos Head Coach Dan Vanhooren of fifth-year guard John Riad, who scored 20 points in Friday's match.
Those would become haunting words by Saturday night.
In a tilt that would have made an ideal gold medal match, the Dinos lost Riad to a dislocated shoulder 12 minutes into the game, subtracting the third-highest-scoring Dino of all time from the game's equation.
The end result, a 69-67 loss to the Ravens, was a disappointing end to an intense and promising season which saw the Canada West victors--and fourth seed at the national tournament--come up against the weekend favourite one game too soon. Both teams played with energy and skill and the outcome was in question until the clock had finally wound down.
"It was a big loss to lose John," said Vanhooren following the game, "[but] the guys showed their character and we were in the game."
Heading into the second half the score was 36-35 for the Ravens but neither side was able to pick up momentum in the first five minutes, as only two points were scored--both by the Ravens. Carleton then managed to hit several outside shots leaving the Dinos trailing by nine with only seven minutes remaining.
Fourth-year forward John Salgado took it upon himself to turn things around for Calgary, hitting a pair of quick lay-ups followed by two three-pointers courtesy Surinder Grewal. The Dinos kept coming, drawing to within three after Salgado hit a pair of clutch free throws.
The final minutes of the game were a flurry of tight defense and fast offence. Both teams steadily gained momentum and the Dinos were narrowing the gap.
With just over two minutes remaining, Dinos forward and tournament all-star Chris Wright fouled out, leaving Calgary even thinner. Undaunted, Aman Heran kept things going on the court with a well-timed, off-balance trey.
Then, with nine seconds to go, Carleton drained two free throws, sealing the Dinos' fate.
"It was heartbreaking," said Assistant Coach Wayne Thomas after the game. "[Riad] was on a mission."
Last year the Dinos were excluded from the Canada West Final Four after the University of Alberta Golden Bears narrowly defeated them in the Mountain Division final. Still, their goal that season was to make the playoffs and they did just that.
This year the team returned hungry to be recognized for the skill they showed last spring. Mature and confident, they were determined to make it to nationals and they did so in style.
With a 15-5 record, the Dinos outshone their age-old rivals in Edmonton, placing first in the Canada West regular season standings. After winning their divisional playoff, the team earned the title of Canada West champions--knocking off the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds to do so--and clinched a top-four seed at nationals.
"It's been a very successful year for the program," said Riad. "At the start of the season no one really gave us a chance."
"The team believed in themselves from the beginning," said Vanhooren. "They knew they could compete with anyone.
"The adversity we faced in Saskatchewan and the sweep at U of A were really big weekends."
However, without the players, the coaching staff and the fans there would be no Canada West title.
Players like Riad, Heran, Wright and Whit Hornsberger were able to sense each other's place on the court and put the ball where it needed to beÂ---whether that meant in the basket or in the hands of another player who could do it for them. Salgado and Grewal were dependable and consistent in their positions, scoring key points both inside and out. Ian Ferguson was a strong, silent force; solid on defence and gaining crucial offensive ground for the Dinos at moments when they most need someone to turn the momentum--his contribution cannot be understated. Rookie Brendan Groat and fifth-year Sean Newland's ability to score and defend as depth players also played a key role in the team's success this year.
On the sidelines, the guidance and dedication of Vanhooren and Thomas were described by one of their players as "phenomenal." The combination of Vanhooren's energy and dynamism and Thomas's wisdom and wealth of coaching experience truly defined the squad. It may have been the players who first aimed for a trip to nationals, but it was the faith and tutelage of their coaches that made their dream possible.
In the stands, there were the players' families. From Victoria to Arizona, parents not only attended as many home games as they could, but many were able to make the long trip to Halifax and support the team. While eastern teams can generally expect solid support in the stands, the section of Dino die-hards was an emotional vote of confidence.
This was a team that had everything in place, a team that was ready to win. They earned their shot and they had all the right people in place to make this their year.
Wright shone, scoring 26 points and hauling down 30 rebounds over the two games. In spite of his injury, Riad managed a weekend total of 24 points, while Hornsberger had 26 and Heran 20.
"Full marks for our ranking," said Thomas of the men's performance. "Chris Wright got 30 rebounds in two games and Whit [Hornsberger] played 40 minutes [on Saturday]. Salgado played his best game of the year [against Carleton]."
Unfortunately, it was not to be.
The national title ultimately went to Carleton in a 63-59 victory over the third-ranked St. Francis Xavier University X-Men.
What, then, would be the reward for this team that rose out of the prairie dust to become a national title threat?
"It's not how I wanted to end it," admitted Riad. "[But] I've made friends for life. You can be sad, but the bonds [I have] with these gentlemen is priceless."
"The hardest thing is that your team loses some of the members," said Thomas, who was remorseful that Riad, Heran and Newland won't get to return with the team to next year's national championship.
The remaining Dinos have every intention of booking a return trip, however.
"Our goal wasn't accomplished," said Wright. "We realized what it takes and we're even hungrier."
While several key players move on to bigger and better things, there is still a lot of strength among those who remain. Wright, Hornsberger and Salgado will all return to the team next year, as will Grewal and Ferguson. Although the fifth-year players will be sorely missed, the Dinos' bench remains deep and confident.
As Wright put it, "we'll be back."