By Ben Waldman
The champagne and water that drenched the Ryerson Rams after the team’s OUA championship victory a week earlier has long been dried. The players’ and coaches’ necks no longer bare the gold medals that adorned them just a few days ago.
On Thursday night, when Ryerson faced the University of British Columbia in a quarterfinal clash in Vancouver, the players were soaking not with bubbly beverages but with sweat, and the team felt a different type of weight on their shoulders than that of their old prizes.
UBC’s Thunderbirds did not care if the Rams were Ontario champions. The host team, backed by a bombastic crowd, wanted to give their guests everything they had. They did that, but somehow, it was not enough.
After trailing for the entire game, Ryerson pulled ahead in overtime and defeated UBC 109-101.
But, as any of the members of the near-sold out crowd at the Doug Mitchell Thunderdome could tell you, it wasn’t an easy win.
“They were red-hot,” Ryerson coach Patrick Tatham said, still in a state of utter astonishment.
From the very start, Ryerson—heavily favoured leading up to the game— was digging itself into and then out of deep holes. The Rams trailed by as many as 15 points in the second quarter.
With the score 35-20 for the Thunderbirds, Adika Peter-McNeilly, Ryerson’s metronomic combo guard, stepped up and hit a three pointer to shave the lead to 12. After a few minutes, the Rams had all but erased the deficit. UBC led by one.
It was in the midst of this run, and not in the lackadaisical play leading up to it, that the Rams showed their true calibre. And the entirety of the swing occurred with Aaron Best, Ryerson’s All-Canadian guard, planted firmly on the away bench.
Best played only six minutes in the first half, with zero seconds on the court in the pivotal second quarter. Guards Peter-McNeilly and Ammanuel Diressa filled the void. Diressa shot with supreme confidence, creating opportunities for himself and spreading the floor capably. Peter-McNeilly scored 10 points in the frame.
Eventually, Ryerson tied the game at 40.
If it seemed that UBC’s Phil Jalalpoor, Jordan Jensen-Whyte and Conor Morgan hit every three pointer they shot in the first half, it’s because they nearly did; the Thunderbirds shot 66 per cent from beyond the arc in the first half.
It wasn’t a lack of defense on Ryerson’s part. It was a lack of conformity by UBC to the laws of gravity.
The first half ended with the score 47-43 for the Thunderbirds. It could have been a bit better for the Rams, but it likely should have been much worse.
When Best returned in the second half, Ryerson looked energized, albeit momentarily. After Ryerson tied the game at 47, the Thunderbirds enjoyed a 9-0 run. How did the run end? Why, with a banked three pointer by Ammanuel Diressa of course.
After bringing the game within five, Ryerson slipped again. Their defense now looked porous, stagnant and ineffective, and in what felt like a minute, the Thunderbirds were up once more by 14 points.
Sensing that he had to, Peter-McNeilly calmly stepped up and hit a three. Heading into what probably should have been the last meaningful quarter of the season for Ryerson, the Rams trailed by eight.
The Thunderbirds lead shrank and then grew, then it shrank and grew again. UBC’s David Wagner, a six-foot-nine post, somehow found himself in a tall man’s dream, matched up against the Rams’ six-foot guard Roshane Roberts. Wagner and the rest of his teammates recognized this and attacked, stretching the lead to nine.
Patrick Tatham saw it, too, and made a move that saved Ryerson’s championship aspirations. JV Mukama entered the game.
Mukama, who had struggled mightily until that point, silenced the crowd with a swish from beyond the arc.
When Best split a pair of free throws a few possessions later, the Rams inched closer to taking the lead.
But then the Thunderbirds began to pull away for what looked like the last time.
Diressa aired a desperation three ball after Adika Peter-McNeilly rushed a jumper of his own.
The crowd began to cheer. “Overrated!” echoed throughout the building.
Mukama drove hard to the rim and went up for a lay-in. It rattled in, and he nailed the free throw after it.
UBC’s game ops crew must not have been watching too closely.
“Na Na Na Na, Na Na Na Na, Hey Hey Hey, Goo-ood bye” blared over the intercom.
None of the UBC fans sang along.
Next time up the court, Mukama caught the ball in the left corner, hoisted up a prayer, and tied the game at 90. It was a shot every player dreams of making, but dreads missing.
“I was going crazy,” Peter-McNeilly said of the shot. “You’ve gotta stay level-minded though.”
In overtime, Tatham’s team got its first lead of the game.
It went away quickly, with a basket by Jensen-Whyte, but a series of acrobatic defensive movements and offensive magic tricks pushed Ryerson over the top.
Mukama flew for a massive cram. Rams forward Kadeem Green got the last of his five blocks. Roshane Roberts collected himself and swished two free throws.
UBC climbed back now, playing the role Ryerson did in regulation, and the Rams led by four with 26 seconds to go.
When the Thunderbird fans disagreed with a foul call, Peter-McNeilly approached the free throw line. Over chants of “Bullshit!” the fourth-year guard made both.
Roberts did the same a few moments later.
And Aaron Best, who only scored five points in the game and was not called upon throughout the game, dribbled the ball up court as the clock ticked down. He was the last Ram to touch the ball.
UBC was reasonably distraught and in disbelief.
“The team played the best game of their season,” coach Kevin Hanson said. “I told [my team], I don’t think I’ve ever told a team in my life that I was proud of them, even with a loss.”
Jensen-Whyte, who finished the game with 25 points, was visibly and admittedly shaken.
“I gave everything I had. I’m tired, obviously, and I’m sure [this game] won’t sink in for a little bit. We gave them the best shot we had. We fell a little short,” he said. “I’m sure it’ll sink in eventually, but now I’m just thinking about my game and how I can get better.”
“I thought we were gonna win the whole game,” he continued. “I definitely thought we had ‘em. Whole game. I thought we had ‘em for sure.”
“I texted my daughter this morning and said ‘We’re going to win’,” Hanson said, looking to hold back a few tears. “I said to the guys in there, the best thing was all our guys thought they could win. Right from the get go. They believed that they could win.”
The Rams lost the game over and over and UBC won it over and over. But the Thunderbirds lost the only time it mattered at all: when the clock finally stopped ticking and everybody went home.
Ryerson will face the University of Calgary Dinos in a semi final match at 5:30 PM PST Saturday