The University of Northern British Columbia Timberwolves were a desperate team, fighting for their playoff lives, and rose to the occasion, topping the Grant MacEwan Griffins 89-72 on Friday in Prince George. Unfortunately, the team they needed to lose, the Brandon Bobcats, pulled off an upset win over the Manitoba Bisons, eliminating the TWolves from the Canada west post-season picture.
“It wasn’t a different game, in terms of preparation for us,” said UNBC’s Tyrell Laing. “We have wanted every game this year. We understand what was at stake, so we wanted to come out and compete.”
Knowing their playoff lives were hanging in the balance, the Timberwolves came out a hungry team in the first quarter. Veteran guard Vova Pluzhnikov was assertive getting to his spots and attacking the paint, while fifth-year forward Anthony Hokanson chipped in with tough baskets. MacEwan would respond, as Abdullah Shittu’s length provided a problem for UNBC, but it was the TWolves leading 29-15 after ten minutes.
“We wanted to be aggressive and play with pace,” said Laing. “Play fast, and make them guard us in transition. That was the plan.”
In the second frame, the TWolves continued to push the pace, looking to score in transition. Tyrell Laing, Saje Gosal, and Chris Ross all made three-pointers on the fast break, as the home team looked to stretch the lead. Jake Notice did well to answer for the Griffins, but the zone defense of the Timberwolves was effective in reducing scoring opportunities for MacEwan. At the half, UNBC held a 54-29 advantage.
“They were fighting for their playoff lives out there, and they came out harder than us in the first quarter,” said MacEwan’s Jake Notice. “They took it to us, really. We got shots, but we struggled to knock them down.”
Quarter three saw a similar pace set by UNBC, as they looked to beat the visitors up the floor. However, the Griffins were far better in transition, and were able to assert themselves with better success in the quarter. Notice continued to drive the bus, with Luke Harold and Dustin Gatzki chipping in. The Timberwolves dug in, started to get better looks, and got good contributions from Saymon Loki and Fareed Shittu down low. With one quarter to go, UNBC was holding a 72-49 lead.
“They just played really hard, honestly,” said Notice. “Their big guys crashed the boards and made it difficult for us to get fast breaks, because we couldn’t get rebounds.”
In the fourth, UNBC coach Todd Jordan used his bench, as young guards Colburn Pearce and Dylon Matthews got valuable court time. The Griffins were able to get some open looks for Jesse Trussler Deonte Doslov-Doctor, but they would run out of time. At the final buzzer, it was 87-69 in favour of the TWolves.
The victory was bittersweet, however. The Brandon Bobcats mounted a late comeback and topped the Manitoba Bisons, meaning the Timberwolves cannot catch them in the standings, eliminating UNBC from playoff contention.
UNBC was well balanced on offence, with Tyrell Leaing leading the way with 20 points. Pluzhnikov added 16 points, to go along with six rebounds and four assists. Fareed Shittu had a 12 point, 11 rebounds double double, adding six steals and four assists. Loki also reached double figures with 12 points and eight rebounds.
“It brings a completely different dynamic when we have a lot of guys going,” said Laing, postgame. “We spread the defense out more, and it is hard to key in on any one individual. We are a tough unit to guard when we have guys rolling.”
For MacEwan, Notice had 18 points, along with four rebounds. Luke Harold added 14 points, while Abdullah Shittu and Doslov-Doctor each had nine.
“It was a tough year, but a few guys really took some steps forward,” said Notice. “Especially the younger guys. Hopefully this is something we build into this last game, and take those forward into next year.”