By Ben Waldman
The Ryerson Rams men’s basketball team has accomplished a lot this season: They won an OUA East division title; forward Keevon Small earned a spot on the league all-rookie team; and both Adika Peter-McNeilly and Ammanuel Diressa were named first-team all-stars.
None of that matters anymore.
When the Rams board the team bus to the nation’s capital to face the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees in the league semi-finals at Carleton University on Friday, their accolades will mean absolutely nothing to them or their opponents.
After winning last year’s OUA championship with a come-from-behind victory over Carleton to earn the school’s first-ever league title, Ryerson is looking to repeat and put another banner up in Coca-Cola Court. A championship victory would also secure Ryerson a berth in the national tournament, where the team has finished third for two years in a row.
They’re hoping for a better result this year, but must first fight through Ottawa, a team that Ryerson beat 94-88 in overtime just a couple of weeks earlier after the Gee-Gees pushed the Rams to their limit.
Two seasons ago, Ottawa, led by league MVP Johnny Berhanemeskel, beat Ryerson in the CIS (Now U Sports) semi-finals when they hosted the national tournament. Every game between the teams since has felt like a continuation of that, with Ottawa trying to repeat and Ryerson trying to prevent.
Only four players remain from that 2015 Rams squad—Peter-McNeilly, Juwon Grannum, Fil Vujadinovic and Adam Voll—and even though they popped the champagne last year, they certainly haven’t forgotten when Ottawa ended their Cinderella story a year earlier.
To get back to this year’s OUA Final Four—their third appearance in as many years—the Rams had to beat the upstart Nipissing Lakers in the second round of the playoffs, a task they accomplished with relative ease. Diressa led the way with 22 points, and Vujadinovic contributed a career-high 20 on 8-13 shooting, as Ryerson won 87-62 in just the second OUA playoff game in Nipissing men’s basketball history.
The Gee-Gees are much more formidable than the Lakers, though. Guard Caleb Agada was named league defensive player of the year for the second year in a row, and a first-team all-star for a third consecutive year. Jean Emmanuel Pierre-Charles, a former Carleton Raven, was also named an all-star, and with Agada forms an enviable tandem.
If Ryerson gets past Ottawa, things won’t get any easier in the OUA championship game.
Playing in the other semi-final are Brock and Carleton, the only two teams that beat the Rams during the regular season.
Brock ended Ryerson’s season-opening 12-game win streak in late January and Carleton exacted some revenge for last year’s Wilson Cup final loss by beating Ryerson at the Raven’s Nest on Feb. 17.
But just as Ryerson’s regular season accomplishments don’t matter now, neither do Ottawa’s, Brock’s or Carleton’s.
When the Rams and Gee-Gees tip off on Friday night at 8 p.m. at Carleton, everything, not just the ball, will be up in the air.