Stu Walters /UBC Thunderbirds
VANCOUVER - The UBC Thunderbirds opened their best of three Canada West quarter-final series with a total team effort and a convincing 106-74 win over the visiting Manitoba Bisons.
It was just one year ago in this same quarterfinal series that the 'Birds dropped back to back games against the visiting Bisons, so redemption was on the forefront of many of the returning players minds. Against that backdrop and after a bye week it was a slightly uneven first few minutes of the first quarter that saw the T-Birds trailing 5-0 early but the hosts quickly started executing and never looked back the rest of the way.
The Thunderbirds would find their focus and started pushing the pace in transition to open a 22-18 lead at the end of the first. Setting the tone was fifth-year forward Conor Morgan who picked up 12 of his game high 21 points and five of his game high 11 rebounds in the frame. For the Bisons it was forward Dharmjit Dhillon leading the way with eight points on the strength of shooting three for four from the field and included him hitting two of his game high four three point shots. Forward James Wagner also chipped in with seven points for Manitoba.
Morgan would add seven more points in the second quarter with the highlite being one of his thee monster dunks on the night, spinning baseline and going sky high for the flush. First-year guard Mason Bourcier added five of his eight points on the evening while guard Rashawn Browne led the visitors with five points in the frame. Of note Bisons guard Justice Alleyn who led the Canada West in scoring during the regular season was unable to find his rhythm on the night, failing to score a first half point going 0-for-9 on his field goal attempts.
The 'Birds would enjoy a 46-32 advantage at the break and on the other side of it the hosts depth would reveal itself the rest of the way in outscoring Manitoba 35-21 in the third quarter. With Morgan taking most of the third quarter off it was first-year forward Grant Shephard stepping in with nine of his 17 points on the night, which included him making his one three-point attempt. Fifth-year guard Phil Jalalpoor also made his presence felt with 10 of his 17 points in the game, helping his cause by hitting two of his three shots from beyond the arc. Third-year guard Taylor Browne added seven points for the T-Birds. For Manitoba it was forward Cameron O'Hara that established himself in the paint by scoring 11 of his team high 16 points in the frame ahead of finishing with an impressive 7-for-8 from the floor.
The fourth quarter saw Jalalpoor pour in seven more points while Shephard added five more to each finish with 17 points. Also chipping in was first-year guard Grant Audu with six of his 12 points for the hosts who received 43 points from their bench as opposed to the Bisons who counted just five points off the bench. Bisons leading scorer Cameron O'Hara fouled out of the game in the fourth quarter while Dhillon and Wagner finished with 16 points each. Alleyn would earn all eight of his points in the final quarter and finished the night 3-for-18 from the floor.
Thunderbirds head coach Kevin Hanson was pleased with his teams overall effort.
"I thought there was a little bit of playoff jitters early obviously for the veteran guys coming back there was a little bit of a memory from last year," said Hanson. "We didn't really talk too much about it but I think it was there and just the early start putting us off our routine a little. We eventually found our legs, and once we made some things happen they played loose and once we played loose we were fine.
Hanson also appreciated the attention to details from his squad.
"What I really liked was our guys stuck to the game plan that we came up with through the week and I said to them to them post game that there was a lot of positives on the defensive and offensive end." Hanson continued. "There was a lot of individual performances that were really good but overall there was a lot of guys that did some really good things and I think our depth really showed in the end of this game."
The Thunderbirds and Bisons meet for game two of the best of three quarter-final series on Friday night with a 4 p.m. PT tip off at UBC's War Memorial Gym.
PHOTO: Bob Frid / UBC Thunderbirds