Veteran Tigers eye third straight men's basketball title
By Monty Mosher
The Dalhousie Tigers could have played for March starting in September.
But it's just not Rick Plato's way.
The Tigers won the golden ticket last year, knowing they would be the host entry for the 2017 U Sports national championship tournament at Scotiabank Centre.
It is the keenest of double-edged swords, permitting a team to prepare meticulously for an event months in the future while trying to avoid any complacency that might come with it.
So it is that Plato's Tigers, the two-time defending AUS champions, bashed the door down for this year's conference tournament, leading the league at 16-4 and earning the top seed. They won their last eight in a row, as if to say to the rest of the league there are no nights off.
The Tigers and the UNB Varsity Reds, 14-6, have the byes to the semifinals and begin play Saturday night.
The Memorial Sea-Hawks, 12-8, and the Acadia Axemen, 10-10, begin the men's quarter-finals Friday at 6:30 p.m. with the Saint Mary's Huskies, 13-7, against the St. Francis Xavier X-Men, 9-11, at 8:30 p.m.
The men's final is Sunday at 4:30 p.m.
Should the Tigers win, they would enter the Final 8 as the champs and take the finalist with them as the host. The AUS gets two tournament beths either way.
Plato's formula is simple and ruthlessly efficient. Play solid team defence without fouling and play as hard as possible, especially on the glass.
It is no accident the Tigers allowed a conference-best 71 points per game, 10 better than anybody else.
"We have tremendous veteran leadership in our fifth-year captains -- Ritchie Kanza Mata, Jarred Reid and Kashrell Lawrence," said Plato. "Together they have played in many big games and have tremendous pride in the program and culture which they have been largely responsible for creating."
The Varsity Reds are after their first title since 1967 and have the league's best player in Javon Masters. He was slowed an ankle injury in February, but finished strong.
UNB won five straight to finish the regular season. They swept their two games with Dalhousie.
UNB head coach Brent Baker said his team was fortunate to win a bye.
"Our squad relied a great deal on our depth over the course of the season when dealing with injuries and foul trouble, so we're going to stay with the formula that got us here.
"We are not top five in too many statistical categories, but we have the second most wins in the league this season."
Saint Mary's has everything it needs to win with a veteran core of Marquis Clayton, Theon Reefer, Brian Rouse and Achuil Lual. They went 8-2 to finish the regular season and split their four games this year with the Tigers.
"We need to control their big men and slow their team down in transition," said Taussig.
Acadia had a 4-3 finish and split with Memorial last weekend in preparation for another tussle with the Sea-Hawks.
"We are playing well heading into the tournament," said Axemen head coach Kevin Duffie. "The keys to victory will be timely defensive stops and shot quality."
Memorial won five of its last eight, but had a 3-7 regular season record away from St. John's. Nobody finished hotter than forward Vasilije Curcic, who totalled 124 points in his team's last five games.
"We will have to defend pretty hard to contain Acadia and we will have to be disciplined on the offensive end, getting the right shots for us," said Memorial head coach Peter Benoite.
Steve Konchalski, in his 42nd season with the X-Men, is back in the tournament for the first time since 2014.
Bercy, with an MVP-caliber season, and a veteran nucleus gives the X-Men a shot, but they lost eight of their last 10.
"We have relied heavily on the play of senior forward Kevin Bercy, one of the top players in the league, if not the nation," said Konchalski.
"For us to win this weekend we will need consistent contributions from the other senior starters as well as the bench. Bercy, Cameron Walker, Julius Antoine and Davonte Provo were all part of the X-Men team that advanced to the AUS final three years ago and it would be great to see them get that opportunity again."