The Dalhousie Tigers men’s basketball team had a successful 2016-2017 season that ended with them finishing at the top of the AUS standings.
The Tigers won their third straight AUS championship, as well as the men’s basketball program’s first national championship medal of any kind.
“It’s been a huge success,” said Tigers’ coach Rick Plato.
The Tigers had a successful regular season and finished as the top team in the standings for the second straight year. They won 16 games and lost four, which improved upon their 13-7 record from last season.
The Tigers separated themselves as the best team in the league when they ended the season by winning eight games in a row.
The Tigers were a tough team to play against, grinding out slow-pace games that they could control. They allowed the fewest points per game in the league with 71.8, which was still 11.8 points higher than Plato’s original goal for his team of 60. They were the second-lowest scoring team at 81.8 points per game, but their 46.6 shooting percentage on field goals was the best in the league. The Tigers also committed the fewest turnovers but had the most steals.
This great season earned the team many honours. Plato was awarded AUS Coach of the Year. Senior point guard Ritchie Kanza Mata won Defensive Player of the Year, leading the AUS with 47 steals. Senior forward Kashrell Lawrence won the U-SPORTS Student-Athlete Community Service Award. Kanza Mata and Lawrence were also named to the AUS first all-star team.
Kanza Mata had the biggest individual accomplishment this season — in a game against Saint Mary’s on January 15, he recorded his 536th career assist, which broke the AUS record. He is now the only AUS player in history to have over 600 assists — he finished with 605.
The Tigers were in a unique position heading into the playoffs. They were the hosts of the Final 8, which meant they were guaranteed to be in the tournament. But they didn’t use this as an excuse to take it easy through the AUS playoffs. They wanted to be the first team to win three straight AUS championships since the 2003-2006 StFX X-men, and they also didn’t want to get stuck with the lowest seed in the tournament.
“I knew [being the host] was going to be on the guys minds, but we did a great job at not being complacent,” said Plato. “The guys knew they wanted to go into that tournament as the AUS champions.”
Even though the Tigers dominated the regular season, they had a tougher road in the AUS playoffs. In their first game, they found themselves down 65-59 to Acadia with two and a half minutes left in the game. The Tigers ended up scoring 9 consecutive points to win the game 68-65. In the AUS championship game, the Tigers were down 10 points at half time to the Saint Mary’s Huskies but managed to come back and win the game 63-60 to capture their third straight AUS championship.
Tigers guard Ritchie Kanza Mata won the AUS Championships MVP. Kanza Mata was able to shut down opponents and execute offensive plays late in both games to help the Tigers win. Kashrell Lawrence and Sven Stammberger were just as important in the Tiger’s AUS championship victory and were named to the AUS championship first all-star team along with Kanza Mata.
Plato is satisfied that his team won three straight championships. When he took over the team in the 2013-2014 season, they had six wins and 14 losses, which was the second worst record in the league. He is proud that Ritchie Kanza Mata, Kashrell Lawrence, Jarred Reid and Sven Stammberger, who were on that team, have bought into his system and worked hard to become three time AUS champions. Plato has admitted in the past that he is a hard coach and had to force his now veteran players to park their egos for the betterment of the team. Their three-straight AUS championships are a testament to their ability to do so.
“I may have been the driving force to get on their case, but they did the work,” said Plato. “They responded on the court and they have become men, leaders, all round great student athletes and I think they have won the admiration of not just Halifax and Dal, but a lot of people across the country. And to me, that’s what its all about.”
The Tigers went into the Final 8 with heavy hearts. Tigers guard Ryan Harnett had to leave the team because his father was dying of cancer. He passed away the day after the Tiger’s opening game of the Final 8. The Tigers wanted to win the national title not only for the fans of Halifax, but also for Harnett.
The Tigers’ experience in close games came in handy in their first game of the Final 8. The Tigers and the University of Alberta were tied at 65 with five seconds remaining in the game. With 1.4 seconds left Lawrence hit a layup, which won them the game.
Dalhousie played their semi-final game against the top ranked Ryerson Rams. The Tigers again found themselves in a nail biting game and were down by one point with three seconds left. Lawrence took a forced three point shot to try to win the game but the Tigers’ 4th quarter magic ran out and Lawrence missed, sending Ryerson to the championship game.
The loss was heart-breaking for the Tigers but they were forced to rebound in order to win the bronze medal. Dalhousie found themselves down 32-25 at the end of the first half of their bronze medal game against McGill. The Tigers awoke in the second half and outscored McGill 27-13 in the final quarter to win the game 69-63 and capture bronze. This was the Tigers men’s basketball program’s first national championship medal in the school’s history. Even though the Tigers did not accomplish their ultimate goal of winning the national championship, they are proud that the won the school’s first medal in front of their home fans and for Ryan Harnett.
Plato was impressed with the support the Tigers received in the Final 8.
“We had tremendous support,” said Plato about the fans in the Final 8. “I told the guys if we got to the final I would guarantee that place would have been jammed packed. The enthusiasm of the student body and the entire city, it was breath taking and I think the guys played off that a little bit.”
Plato credits his senior players with being able to find a way for the Tigers to win tight games during the playoffs. He believes if Kanza Mata didn’t foul out of their Final 8 semi-final game, they probably would have won it.
“Ritchie (Kanza Mata) has been there and done that and if he had not fouled out I think the ending might have been a little bit different,” says Plato.
This year was the last season for seniors Ryall Stroud, Ritchie Kanza Mata, Jarred Reid and Kashrell Lawrence. They were all starters for the Tigers this year. Kanza Mata, Lawrence and Reid were important parts of the Tigers three-straight AUS championships. Stroud transferred to Dal from Queen’s this year.
“They meant a great deal,” said Plato of his graduating seniors. “They provided leadership, stability, they drew on the experiences that they had and they did whatever I asked them to do. They’re fine young men. They’re motivated, they’re respectable, I look at those guys especially those three (Kanza Mata, Lawrence, Reid) they’re a part of my family. Andrea (team manager and Plato’s wife) and I look at Ritchie, Kash and Jarred as sons. I care so much about them.”
The Tigers are going to have to move on from their seniors. Guard Jordan Aquino-Serjue has been groomed to take over as starting point guard on the team next year. Sascha Kappos looks like he will take over Ryall Stroud’s place as the starting center, as he started over Stroud in the Bronze Medal game. Sven Stammberger will once again be the starting power forward. Injured players Alex Carson and Cedric Sanogo are expected to be fully healthy at the start of next season and in the starting line-up, but new recruits Keevan Veinot, Tyler Williams and Jordan Brathwaite will push them for those starting jobs.
“I know we’ve got work to do. We have some huge shoes to fill,” says Plato. “Our goal is to improve on what we did this year, which is going to mean we will have to get to the national final.”