Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – Trailing by 27 at half-time, the MacEwan Griffins men's basketball squad launched into their finest 20 minutes of hardcourt action this season, scoring 58 second-half points in a stunning comeback attempt.
They came up a basket short.
Ali Raza had an open look at a three-pointer on the run that clanged off the rim as time expired and the visiting UNBC Timberwolves escaped with an 85-83 Canada West victory.
T'Wolves head coach Todd Jordan unbuckled his seatbelt and breathed a huge sigh of relief after his team managed to pull it out.
"To be honest, I don't know if we deserved to win the way we finished the game," said Jordan. "I thought we were awesome in the first half. We came out and defended, kept them in front of us. We really ran it, got stuff in transition.
"(In the second half) I think we just got soft defensively. They got some momentum and some confidence, and they made their run. We're really fortunate to get out of here tonight with a win."
It was a game of inches in the final minute as the teams traded missed free throws and the Griffins had a put-back attempt hang on the front of the rim and spin out – another potential bucket that would have sent the game to overtime.
"It's interesting. Our league comes down to single plays," said Griffins head coach Eric Magdanz. "We play a 40-minute game and it comes down to a couple individual plays.
"Unfortunately, the ball didn't roll our way tonight. We didn't put ourselves in a great spot after the first half, but we showed some heart and really battled back and we're pretty proud of that."
UNBC was terrific in the opening 20 minutes as they opened with a 16-4 run and cruised into the half up 51-25 on sizzling 50 per cent shooting. Vaggelis Loukas had 14 of his team-high 21 points in the opening half, while Volodymyr Pluzhnikov had 12 of his 13.
The Griffins, meanwhile, shot just 29 per cent, committed 10 first-half turnovers, and were just in tatters on defence. They were so far behind at the break, you wonder what kind of choice words Magdanz uttered to spur the turnaround.
"I don't think I can repeat what I said," he chuckled before continuing. "You know, for us it was about staying diligent to the process of us getting better and understanding what makes us successful – being unselfish basketball players, moving the ball, getting others involved and finding open gaps. In the first half, we weren't doing any of those things. We were playing a lot of isolation basketball and UNBC, to their credit, loaded up and made us look like we had a lot of bad plays.
"I thought we did a much better job of competing defensively in the second half and moving the ball to create some advantages."
Ryan Coleman also showed off his fifth-year moxie, igniting the Griffins with eight-straight third-quarter points as they got within 12 entering the fourth quarter. He finished with a team-high 21 points – 19 of those in the second half – and narrowly missed a double-double with nine boards.
"I think we're most proud of his rebounding," said Magdanz. "We haven't had that from a centre this year, so getting that out of him is big and hopefully we can keep that rebounding (production) from our 5 position the rest of this year."
The Griffins continued to ride the momentum in the fourth quarter, chipping away at UNBC's lead and finally tying the game 82-82 on Jake Notice's three-pointer with a minute left. But the Timberwolves found a way to escape and sweep the weekend to move to 4-6 on the season. The Griffins are now 1-7.
"Any time you get two wins in Canada West, it's really positive," said Jordan. "We accomplished what we wanted to do this weekend. It does sour it a little bit the way we finished the game today.
"All the credit to them for coming out and coming at us, but when you're up 25 at half-time, you're making some mistakes to let a team back in at that point. I think we've got to take a look and we can't be too happy with it. But two wins, we'll take it."
Loukas had a monster double-double for UNBC with 21 points and 17 rebounds, while Marcus MacKay had 16 points, and both Anthony Hokanson and Pluzhnikov had 13.
Besides Coleman, the Griffins got 12 points from Deonte Doslov-Doctor and 10 from Raza.
MacEwan will close out the first half of the season with a visit to Winnipeg on Dec. 1-2, while the Timberwolves will visit Thompson Rivers on the same dates.