By Jack MacCool
The Rams men’s basketball team clinched a playoff berth with a tough 70-66 win over the Laurentian Voyageurs when their regular season came to a close on March 6.
The win secured them home court advantage in the first round of the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) playoffs, which could prove to be a big advantage come Wednesday night when the post-season begins.
“There’s nothing like it,” said Rams guard Jaaden Lewis. “There’s nothing like that type of environment where you have your home crowd being able to come out and support.”
Lewis has been a key contributor to the Rams, averaging nine points and adding almost four rebounds per game as a guard. Since the OUA returned to play in February, Lewis has elevated his play, averaging double-figures and scoring 14 or more in four of the eight games he’s played in.
However, it wasn’t always smooth seas for Lewis and the squad this year.
The Rams opened the season with a three-game losing streak, which included a double-overtime heartbreaker against Nipissing on Nov. 12. But from that point on, the Rams found their footing and won their final three games of 2021.
The new year also proved to be a fresh start for the Rams. They went 5-3 following the OUA’s winter hiatus to clinch an 8-6 regular season record.
The Rams’ coaching staff knew this season would have its obstacles following almost two years of inactivity and all the challenges that came along with a global pandemic.
“Since we had not played any games together, we lost some games in the beginning of the season,” said Rams head coach David DeAveiro. “We knew the chemistry would come from playing together and since those early games, we’ve stepped up and gone 8-3.”
After securing a playoff spot on the final day of the regular season, the Rams will face the Laurentian Voyageurs in their opening postseason matchup.
“We knew the chemistry would come from playing together”
The first round of the playoffs will be the third straight game against Laurentian for the Rams, after beating the Voyageurs in the last two games of the regular season. However, those wins didn’t come without adversity and drama.
The two matchups came on the same weekend, with the Rams winning both by a combined total of eight points. Laurentian is also coming off of a massive upset over the Ottawa Gee-Gees who were ranked No .3 in the country at the time. This may provide them with valuable momentum once they face the Rams.
Even though the playoffs are all business for the Rams, there is a sense of joy that the team’s season is being extended.
“We are so thrilled,” said Rams centre Liam O’Leary-Orange. “We had [almost] two years off and all these stops and starts, I’m just so excited that basketball is even a thing right now.”
O’Leary-Orange elevated his play during his fourth season with the Rams. Like Lewis, the Toronto native has played well since the return to action, scoring double figures in three different matches and putting up a career-high 19 points against the University of Toronto on Feb. 16.
While the Rams were the beneficiaries of increased production from Lewis and O’Leary-Orange, it was rookie Aaron Rhooms who led the team in scoring and became a phenom at Ryerson. Rhooms finished tenth in the OUA in scoring, averaging 19.3 points per game to go along with 7.9 rebounds, which also placed him in the top ten of the conference.
Rhooms averaged 21 points per game in the two matchups with Laurentian. He also torched the Voyageurs for a career-high 28 points on 11-18 shooting against them on March 5. If the Rams are to make a deep run in this year’s OUA playoffs, they’ll need their star rookie to continue putting up strong numbers.
Another player to keep an eye on in the postseason is third-year guard Mouhamed Ndiaye. He’s averaging 11 points on the year and just returned from representing Senegal at the 2021 FIBA AfroBasket Qualifiers where they currently sit atop their respected group in the standings.
“I’m just so excited that basketball is even a thing right now”
Elsewhere in the lineup, second-year sharpshooter Ankit Choudhary is poised to breakout after being held scoreless in the team’s final regular season game. Choudhary has been uber-efficient this season, shooting 48 per cent from the field and 49 per cent from three-point territory to go along with 13.7 points per game.
“Whoever we get, those are the cards we were dealt,” said Lewis. “We still have to come prepared and be ready to play whoever it is. We trust the coaching staff to build the best game plan possible for us, and it’s our job to execute regardless of who we’re playing on Wednesday.”
UP NEXT: The Rams will host Laurentian at the Mattamy Athletic Centre in the first round of the OUA men’s basketball playoffs on Wednesday, March 16. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m.