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Timberwolves beat Spartans 82-78 in Saturday night thriller

Friday night’s game between Trinity Western and UNBC needed overtime, and Saturday night’s thriller looked well on its way to an extra frame, as well. That is, until, the veteran backcourt of Vova Pluzhnikov and Tyrell Laing said not today, with the senior guards each making massive jumpers to secure an 82-78 UNBC Timberwolves victory on Saturday in Langley.

In the early going, Ja’Qualyn Gilbreath came out firing on his senior night at TWU, but Vova Pluzhnikov was ready to match him, burying a pair of early three-pointers to get UNBC’s offense going. Tyrell Laing joined in on the fun, getting to his spot at the midrange for a pair of tough jumpers as the TWolves built a moderate lead midway through the frame. Rohtash Mattu did well to come off the bench and make a couple jumpers with his smooth left-handed release, and UNBC held a 29-21 lead.

“It was important. It gave us confidence, especially after a tough loss yesterday. We were moving the ball and getting to our kill spots,” said UNBC’s Fareed Shittu, about his team’s fast start. “We were sharing the ball and being confident in one another.”

Vlad Mihaila came out with the hot hand in the early part of the second quarter, making a pair of three-pointers to cut into the UNBC lead, while freshman guard Darren Hunter showed some moxie for the TWolves, getting to the line for some hard-earned but easy ones. Gilbreath got going for Trinity, creating problems for UNBC with his speed and shot-making, as the TWolves clung to a single-digit lead. Senior guard Payton Tirrell came off the bench for the Timberwolves and showed his basketball IQ, teaming with Mattu to provide instant offense for the visitors, stretching the lead to 12 with 2:30 to go in the half.

At the half, UNBC led 50-38, thanks to a well-balanced attack on the offensive end and impressive effort at the defensive side of the floor. Laing led the way with 12 points, while Vova Pluzhnikov had 11 points and six rebounds in 11 minutes. Mattu was good for 10 points off the bench, while Fareed Shittu added five points and seven boards.

Gilbreath had 12 points in the half, but found himself in massive foul trouble with four fouls at the break. Mason Bourcier, fresh off a triple-double on Friday, had seven points, seven assists, and six rebounds for Trinity.

The Spartans were an inspired team in the opening minutes of the second half, as Gilbreath found fellow senior Andrew Goertzen for a pair of tough buckets inside to cut into the deficit. The TWolves were ice cold, missing some makeable jumpers and layups, making no field goals in six minutes and allowing Trinity to claw back into the game. The TWolves would settle down, as Shittu got to the cylinder for a dunk, followed by consecutive treys from Pluzhnikov and Laing, extending the lead back to double digits. After 30 minutes, the TWolves held a 63-52 lead.

To open the final quarter, Trinity attacked the hoop, as Gilbreath and Connor Platz got tough finishes at the rim to cut the lead down to six points early in the frame. The Timberwolves looked inside to post due Ledoux and Shittu, but Gilbreath continued to press the issue, finding Tre Fillmore for a corner three to make it a one-point game. A lid formed on the basket for UNBC, as easy shots were missed over and over for the snakebit Timberwolves, much to the delight of the Spartan faithful in attendance.

“They are just really quick. We wanted to get back on defense, but they’re one of the best offensive teams we will see,” said Shittu, of the Spartans. “We wanted to slow them down but it’s difficult. They have some really talented guys, but we did our best.”

A Chris Ross three-pointer gave the TWolves a one-point lead with one minute remaining, followed by a Pluzhnikov three to stretch the lead to four. But, yet again, it was Gilbreath making a trey to cut the lead to a single point with 20 seconds remaining. Cue the dramatics, and the 2019-2020 Canada West scoring champion delivered. Tyrell Laing penetrated, got to the elbow and buried a tough midrange jumper over two Spartans to give UNBC a lead that they wouldn’t relinquish the rest of the way, topping the Spartans 82-78.

Pluzhnikov was UNBC’s high-scorer, going for 21 points and career-high 13 rebounds, while Laing added 17 points and five rebounds. Shittu had 11 points and 12 rebounds, while Mattu chipped in with 10 points in 18 minutes.

Gilbreath was tremendous in his home finale, scoring 33 points, to go along with five rebounds and five assists. Andrew Goertzen, TWU’s other senior, had 13 points in his final game, while Bourcier had eight points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists.

“This is huge for us. We are going to need full confidence to see the full potential of this team be realized,” said Shitu. “It showed us what we can do if we come together on the defensive end. If we play together, and cover for one another, we are good.”

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