ABBOTSFORD – The University of the Fraser Valley men’s basketball team launched its playoff run with a double-digit comeback victory over the UNBC Timberwolves on Thursday at the Envision Financial Athletic Centre.
In a do-or-die, single-elimination first-round game, the No. 6-seeded Cascades had a jittery start and found themselves trailing the No. 11 Timberwolves by as many as 16 points in the second quarter.
But after halftime, the Cascades settled down, locked in on defence, and managed an epic comeback, ultimately prevailing 67-59.
Their opponent for the best-of-three quarter-finals is yet to be determined – it will be either the No. 3 UBC Thunderbirds or the No. 4 Saskatchewan Huskies, pending the outcome of Friday’s first-round game between the No. 5 Regina Cougars and the No. 12 Mount Royal Cougars.
“We are prone to offensive struggles, but I think there were some nerves with the group to begin with,” Cascades head coach Adam Friesen said afterward.
“I think that natural (halftime) break gave a chance to reset, mentally calm down and regroup. Some challenges were issued, and the guys bonded together and decided they weren’t going to give up and were going to win the game on the defensive end.”
As for the T-Wolves, the result marks the end of an era, as senior standouts Jovan Leamy, James Agyeman, Vaggelis Loukas and Austin Chandler have finished their eligibility.
“This is the first time in our history we have consecutively made playoffs (in Canada West), which is big for our program,” UNBC head coach Todd Jordan postgame. “We will miss our senior guys who worked really hard. They have all had important roles for our program. I am proud of our guys.”
Back in November, the Cascades had swept a pair of regular-season games vs. the T-Wolves in Abbotsford, but on Thursday, the visitors looked the part of a seasoned playoff team and raced out to a quick 8-0 lead, with Leamy scoring four points. UFV was ice-cold from the field, hitting just 21.1 per cent (4-for-19) of their attempts.
The T-Wolves continued to roll in the second quarter, reeling off a 13-2 run highlighted by a pair of triples from Tyrell Laing. They led 30-14 at that point, and were up 38-26 at the half.
The Cascades, though, were a different team when they emerged from the locker room. They would limit UNBC to just 21 points the rest of the way, leveraging their superior height and wingspan to contest shots all over the court, and snare contested rebounds.
At the offensive end, 6’10” centre Sukhman Sandhu sparked the Cascades. A true “stretch five”, the third-year player from Surrey, B.C. went 4-for-5 from downtown in the second half, scoring 12 of his team-high 18 points.
UFV opened the third on an 18-5 surge, capped by an and-one layup from Vick Toor, to seize their first lead of the night (44-43) with 1:28 left in the third quarter.
Midway through the fourth, a quick 6-0 UFV surge, highlighted by another Sandhu triple, gave the hosts a 60-53 lead.
In the final two minutes, a gritty Sukhjot Bains bucket in the paint was followed by yet another Sandhu trey to give the hosts a 65-55 advantage and effectively ice the game.
Afterward, Friesen revealed that a fiery halftime speech from fifth-year senior Nav Bains served to ignite the comeback.
“Although everyone played a big part in it, I think we can single out Nav as being the leader who really sets a high standard for everyone on the court,” he said. “It started at the half. In the third quarter, with his energy on ball-screen defence, he had to contain some pretty quick guards. In the first half, we let them get by us all the way to the rim. In the second half, Nav just moved his feet and made life so much more challenging for them at the rim.”
UNBC coach Jordan noted that the Cascades’ size advantage was a “huge factor.”
“Their length at the rim definitely causes us trouble,” he said. “We would get guys on our hips, but they would stay on us until their bigs could contest inside. We didn’t finish much inside.”
“They came out with a lot of energy, and beat us to a lot of the fifty-fifty stuff. We got into some stretches where the ball stuck in our hands and didn’t move, and we lost our momentum. We were fighting uphill the rest of the way.”
Parm Bains chipped in with 16 points for the Cascades, Andrew Morris scored 10, and the Bains brothers combined for 14 – Sukhjot with eight, Nav with six.
Leamy paced the T-Wolves with 15 points, Laing finished with 13, and Vova Pluzhnikov scored 12.
– with files from Rich Abney, UNBC Athletics