Jefferson Hagen / MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON — With 20 seconds left, Denzel James drove the lane and slammed the ball with authority, putting an exclamation point on a night he and the MacEwan University Griffins will never forget.
Not only did the fifth-year senior's play on Saturday lead them to a 77-62 win over visiting Winnipeg to salvage a weekend split, but James broke the institution's all-time mark for career points, passing Robbie Valpreda (1414 points from 1999 to 2005).
"Honestly, it's just an honour," said James, who finished with a team-high 15 points to sit at 1423 for his career that started at MacEwan in 2012 and has spanned both the ACAC and Canada West.
"I'm one of the few guys lucky enough to play all five years here, so like I said it's just an honour."
Exhausted from putting it all out on the floor – in true hero's fashion – James, who has been nursing an injured ankle that kept him out of Friday's game, was carried out of the City Centre Campus gym by a teammate.
"He's been a phenomenal player here for all five years," beamed MacEwan head coach Eric Magdanz afterward. "To be able to pass a record of someone whose name is on a banner on our wall is pretty remarkable.
"He's done it with class the whole way through and he's done it while being a great teammate and making our team better.
"When we recruit student-athletes, we've got somebody now we can say 'look who you can be. Look at all the great things you can do in your career here.' He's really a role model for us in the future as much as he's been through his whole career."
James' record-breaking bucket might have been the most important one of the night for the Griffins. With missed shots mounting at the 5:45 mark of the fourth quarter and the Wesmen started to chip into a 12-point deficit, James drove the lane and ran into a wall of defenders. But he deftly spun and dropped a fade-away jumper that ignited the crowd.
"We really needed that win because I think we need three more wins to get into playoffs," said James, whose squad moves to 5-11 on the season, four points back of the final playoff spot with four games to play. "This is do-or-die today. We needed it."
That reality was reflected in the Griffins' effort, which was relentless all night, especially on the defensive end of the floor. Winnipeg, which dominated the inside and feasted on second-chance points in an 89-85 win over MacEwan on Friday, was outrebounded 52-43 and shot just 33.8 per cent, compared to 47.7 a night earlier.
"It's our most complete defensive game of the year, for sure," said Magdanz. "When we play well defensively, that will lead to good offence. Guys stayed disciplined defensively.
"Winnipeg's a good team with some guys that can really score the ball, but we didn't let that get under our skin. We stayed committed and it paid dividends throughout the game for us."
Winnipeg head coach Mike Raimbault, whose team is 10-6 in the standings after the weekend split, said it was more what MacEwan did rather than what they didn't do.
"I give them a lot of credit," he said. "They played well on both sides of the ball and were grittier and more connected as a group throughout the course of the game. They made a lot more plays than we did."
"I think they controlled the tempo of the game," he added. "They did that on both sides of the ball, offensively and defensively. They made the plays at the right time and were able to hang on and win the game."
Winnipeg was led by Denzel Lynch-Blair, who bucketed a game-high 20 points, adding five rebounds. Narcisse Ambanza added 16, while Sean Tarver chipped in 10. But the most tangible evidence of MacEwan's improved defensive effort was big man Ryan Oirbans, who overwhelmed the Griffins with a 13-point, 13-board double-double on Friday but was held to a scant four points and eight rebounds (only one offensive) on Saturday.
"I think yesterday one of our problems was rebounding," said James. "I think today we beat them by (nine) on rebounding, so second-chance points wasn't a thing for them. We limited them to one shot and then got on a run."
James added eight rebounds to his offensive effort. The Griffins also had Thadius Galvez (13 points and seven rebounds), Keith Gerdes (12 points, eight boards, two blocks and two steals) and Ryan Coleman (12 points and nine rebounds) in double digits.
"We did the little things right," said Magdanz, a complete 180 from when they did the little things wrong a night earlier.
The Griffins can't rest on their laurels, though. They host UBC-Okanagan (2-14) in their final home weekend of the regular season Feb. 3-4, needing a sweep to have a shot at playoffs.
Winnipeg, meanwhile, returns home to host Regina (7-9) as they continue to prepare for the first round of the post-season.
"We go through the same process we do each week," said Raimbault. "We have Regina coming in next week. We get out of here tomorrow, get home, get a little bit of rest and spend the week preparing for what to expect from Regina."