Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Saint Mary's: Huskies come full circle by Chris Kallan


Inside The Tower at Saint Mary's, a university administrator recounted watching a tape of the Huskies men's basketball team's Atlantic conference championship victory over the Acadia Axemen at the Halifax Metro Centre on Sunday.

"I never knew Ike (forward Ikeobi Uchegbu) made so many shots in a row," recalled the person in question. "I also didn't realize Mark McLaughlin made so many mistakes."

Don't send out the riot squad just yet. Everyone still knows McLaughlin is the team's best player, arguably the conference's best player, and certainly one of the top clutch performers in the country. You feel the Huskies can do just about anything as long as he's on the court. It's just uncommon and a tad humourous to hear anyone say something even remotely unflattering about such a larger than life competitor whose star has shone so brightly over the past 12 months. But even hoop royalty isn't exempt from the lofty expectations thrust on the south end school's men's basketball squad (For the record, McLaughlin scored 15 points and handed out seven assists in the final, played all 40 minutes in all three games and was selected as tourney MVP. Sure, he missed nine shots in the championship game and committed six turnovers, but we'll cut him some slack. No McLaughlin means no league title). Uchegbu, a six-foot-five forward, upped his game considerably during the playoffs for the second year in a row. The native of Nigeria averaged 15.7 points on 23-of-31 shooting (74.1 per cent) and pulled down 9.3 boards per game. He did miss one shot in nine attempts in the final, but we'll look the other way on that one.

Saint Mary's and Acadia were the frontrunners to nab league laurels back in the fall, but the Huskies did things in a roundabout way. Ranked as high as fourth in the first coaches poll, Saint Mary's stuck in the top 10 rankings for six straight weeks before bowing out for good by January. A brutal road schedule to start the regular season included two losses to Cape Breton in Sydney and a narrow escape versus winless Memorial in St. John's, N.L. But Saint Mary's won its last four league games and seven of eight heading into the postseason. All things being equal, not earning a first round playoff bye was unthinkable in November, but that's how it all shook out. It's almost as if the Huskies feel that playing more games just means an opportunity for more wins.

Saint Mary's missed more free throws than makes (11-of-23) in Friday's quarterfinal victory over UPEI and only Aaron Duncan's three-point play inside the final 30 seconds saved the Huskies from a first round dismissal. Saint Mary's started slow against St. F.X. in Saturday's semifinal and trailed by 11 at one point before rallying for a 12-point triumph. Bring on the Axemen and let's 'kick it old school' for the second year in a row. Saint Mary's led the 2007 conference final by 16 only to lose by a bucket in overtime. This year, the Huskies led by 11, but were held to one basket over the first 7:35 of the final quarter. After letting the lead slip away and trailing by one, Saint Mary's guard Shane Morrison executed one of those play that could grow in legend as the years go by. A one-handed shot while falling away from the basket with the shot clock on its final tick was good. Shock and awe, hoops style. The Huskies had a lead inside the final two minutes they would not relinquish. Even more startling is the fact Morrison, a second team all-star, played with back spasms all weekend and shot well below his season average before unleashing that gem from his arsenal.

"I knew it was going in, but I wanted the call, too," Morrison smiled shortly before the Huskies' Tuesday afternoon practice. "They gave me the bucket, but I wanted the foul more."

Six-foot-eight forward Derrick Coleman also had a great weekend, unleashing a pair of three's against Acadia that seemed to come from out of nowhere. Fifth-year guard Mark Ross was his usual steady self, registering 17 assists and only leaving the court for one minute in three games.

Third-seeded Saint Mary's (14-6 league, 28-9 overall) faces the No. 6 Ontario West champion Western Mustangs (12-10 league, 22-13 overall) in Friday's 11:30 a.m. Canadian Interuniversity Sport quarterfinal at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa. It's the first time in a quarter century an Atlantic team has had to leave the region for nationals - the Huskies lost both their games during host Victoria's record run of seven straight titles in 1983. "It's going to be exciting to see the size of the facility compared to the Metro Centre," McLaughlin said of the 19,719-seat arena, home to the NHL's Ottawa Senators. "We might have a bit of an advantage having played in abuilding half that size for our league playoffs. But we're not looking past anyone. The seeds mean nothing at all."

Western, which never entered the top 10 all season, leans on all-stars Brad Smith (18.9 ppg) and Matt Curtis (12.7 ppg). The Mustangs also expect six-foot-nine Colin Laforme and perimeter players Jason Milliquet and Alex Brzozowicz to earn plenty of court time. Western was a surprise entry into the Final Eight, but proved they belong with postseason road wins over ranked schools like Windsor and Brock. The Mustangs lost by 16 to Carleton in the Wilson Cup, aka the Ontario championship. Saint Mary's nipped Western 71-70 during the Eric Garland tourney in Fredericton on Oct. 19. The Huskies once trailed by 18 before Saint Mary's head coach Ross Quackenbush subbed in rookie guard Jazz Cain, whose tip-in at the buzzer won the game, and fellow first-year players Jack Gallinaugh and Luke Reynolds.

"The guys who played the first three quarters kind of scared me so we decided to try some of the other kids," Quackenbush said. "They got the job done. But Western is very poised and executes well. They're a solid basketball team. It should be a great game."

A Saint Mary's victory pushes the Huskies into Saturday's 6 p.m. semifinal
(The Score) against the winner of UBC-Brock.

Appearances - 20
Titles - 4 (1999, 1978, 1977, 1973)
Runner-up - 5 (1992, 1982, 1976, 1974, 1968)
Won-loss record - 32-24 (.571)



Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful article, very nice story about their Conference win.... but it doesn't give us the preview of the team, what their season was like and what to look out for. St. Mary's seems to be a very under-rated team should we expect nothing from them?

Anonymous said...

I don't know what part of the article you missed, but I got a pretty good idea from it what said how St. Mary's season went.
Pre-season favourite to under the radar and in the middle of the pack to back where they should have been all along.
SMU is a dangerous team...just ask Concordia, who were knocked out of the first round last year by the Huskies after being seeded #1.
At first glance they may appear not to deserve the #3 seed but as AUS champ I would definitely put them ahead of Laval and Acadia.