Sunday, 9 March 2008

AUS Championship Game Story by Chris Kallan

Once again, a tremendous THANK YOU to Chris Kallan for his wonderful comprehensive stories this weekend; we look forward to hopefully seeing him in Ottawa this coming week.

By Chris Kallan
SAINT MARY'S HUSKIES 75 ACADIA AXEMEN 72 — "Who's coming to Ottawa?"
That's Huskies' fifth-year guard Mark Ross, sporting the trophy in both hands and the netting around his neck, gesturing towards a boisterous crowd of supporters following Sunday afternoon's Saint Mary's victory over the Acadia Axemen at the Halifax Metro Centre. A decent crowd of 4,936 turned out to witness the south end school nab its first men's Atlantic Universities Basketball Conference title since 1999 with a narrow 75-72 triumph. The Huskies advance to the Canadian Interuniversity Sport championship, which begins Friday in the nation's capital.
Saint Mary's head coach Ross Quackenbush broke out into a wide grin once the buzzer sounded. It wasn't long before his eyes welled up with tears. "That thud you hear is Marv Levy falling off my back," he joked in reference to the Buffalo Bills head coach who lost four straight Super Bowls in the early nineties. "We've had lots of succes to reach this stage over the years, but it sure feels good to win, too." The Huskies played in their eighth final over the past decade, but hadn't won the big one since the 1999 title. That's the same year Saint Mary's won its fourth Canadian championship so perhaps this a team of destiny. The Huskies played their third game in as many days, while the defending conference champion Axemen enjoyed opening night off. Acadia took its first lead after Shawn Berry drained a pair of free throws with 2:24 remaining to give the Axemen a 72-71 advantage and its first lead since early in the opening quarter. Saint Mary's had once led by as many as 11 points, but was showing signs of fatigue after two straight shot clock violations inside the final five minutes. But Shane Morrison hit a jaw-dropping 12-foot fallaway shot with 1:58 left and tourney MVP Mark McLaughlin sank a pair of free throws with 5.2 seconds remaining to seal the deal. Acadia guard Andrew Kraus almost stole the ball on the Huskies' final possession, but narrowly stepped on the end line. Axemen forward Achuil Lual heaved a long desperation three-pointer at the buzzer, which looked like it could fall, but the attempt was, in fact, well off the mark. Aaron Duncan led Saint Mary's with 21 points. Ikeobi Uchegbu and McLaughlin added 16 and 15, respectively. McLaughlin played 120 minutes, or two hours of basketball, and never left the court all weekend. Ross, who scored six points and hauled in five rebounds, only sat out one minute. "This is a storybook ending for us," Ross said. "It feels absolutely amazing. I'm so proud of the guys." Lual registered a double-double with 18 points and 12 rebounds for the Axemen, who finished with an 18-2 regular season record. Berry and league MVP Leonel Saintil each had 15 and Kraus 11. Saint Mary's has won at least one playoff game in its last nine postseason appearances, an absolutely staggering statistic. The Huskies are 17-7 over that span.

Acadia — 16
Saint Mary's — 14
St. Francis Xavier — 12
UPEI — 4
Cape Breton — 2
Dalhousie — 1
UNB — 1
Memorial — 0

TOURNEY RECAP — A fantastic turnout of 17,396 spectators filed in through the turnstiles for the five-game, three-day showcase. Why? First, there was no option for fans to bypass the Atlantic championship and simply show up for nationals instead the following week, as was the option for the past 24 years. Second, the legitimacy that any of the top four teams, and theoretically, all six, could walk out a winner. And finally, throw in the fact the Atlantic runner-up wasn't guaranteed a spot at nationals and you have a number of solid arguments for the gaudy numbers. The Cape Breton Capers wrote another chapter, a sad one, in their inability to win consistently during the playoffs; a 2-9 record over the last decade has been a source of frustration for the orange and green faithful. Head coach Jim Charters blamed himself for not preparing his troops well enough after Friday's 10-point quarterfinal loss to the Dalhousie Tigers, but for all intents and purposes, only fifth-year bruiser Eric Breland (35 points, 17 rebounds, one sore, aching back from carrying his team) stood out on the floor. We've previously taken fifth-year guard Paul Blake to task for not performing in March, albeit who knows how much an ongoing foot injury halted his effectiveness. The Capers reached as high as sixth in the country and stayed amongst the top 10 schools for the past eight weeks of the regular season. That's far, far greater than anyone outside of Sydney would have thought possible back in the fall, including notorious glass-half-full people. The club peaked in a 13-point home win over Acadia on Jan. 26 before dropping their final three league games. Overall, Cape Breton was 20-10. The point of this ramble about the Capers? Glad you asked. Keep in mind another Atlantic conference coach struggled to achieve playoff success for a dozen years (1981 to 1993) despite fielding athletic and talented teams. Eventually, the seas parted and 'lots of good stuff' happened. I'm talking about Steve Konchalski at St. Francis Xavier, of course. Some, or perhaps more, will disagree, but Charters should be commended for making Cape Breton competitive, even feared, this season after losing a number of starters. The Capers actually led the conference for awhile and everyone regarded Cape Breton even higher than Acadia at some point this year. You know it, and I know it. That was unfathomable back in the pre-season. Keep at it, Jim, and 'lots of good stuff' will happen, too. The Prince Edward Island Panthers almost forced Saint Mary's through an early exit door in Friday's quarterfinal and might have done so if not for late clutch plays by the Huskies. Still, it was gratifying to see the Panthers offer legit hugs rather than quick handshakes during the postgame meeting at halfcourt. There's nothing like witnessing a club exhibit class in defeat, especially after extreme disappointment mere seconds earlier. If I wore a hat, I'd tip it toward the Panthers right now. Kudos to the Dalhousie Tigers for breaking into the playoff winners circle after almost a decade; Friday's win over Cape Breton was the school's first since 1999. The Tigers put up a heroic effort against mighty Acadia in the semifinal before wilting in the final minutes. As Dal guard Simon Farine suggested, this could be the year Tigers' fans remember as the one where the program turned around. Konchalski, or Coach K as the legions of X fans affectionately call him, was on the brink of his 700th career victory over his illustrious 33-year as a head coach. Saint Mary's stopped the impending milestone in Saturday's semifinal. Konchalski (699-386), who it's believed only trails former Brandon coach Jerry Hemmings (734) in CIS men's basketball coaching wins, will get another shot sometime in October. We love his chances.

FAREWELL: Well, this is the end of the road for me covering the Atlantic university men's basketball championship. I've been fortunate to be paid as a reporter with the now defunct Halifax Daily News for the past nine years, but all good things must come to an end sometime, right? Special thanks to the three-person AUS reps; communications guru John Keefe, executive director Phil Currie and operations manager Patricia Pellerine, who still can't understand why media types are all 'so focused and serious' under tight deadlines. Thanks also to all the coaches and players who stopped to speak to a guy with an 'old school' tape recorder that resembled a big, black brick even after a tough loss. The Atlantic university basketball print scene is in great hands with Chad Lucas of the Chronicle Herald; he's bright, affable, knowledgeable and funny — a true gem. Thanks for the memories, everyone. See you in the stands.


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