The Dalhousie Tigers men’s basketball teams are the first team since the 2003-2006 StFX X-Men to win three straight AUS championships.
They defeated their Halifax rivals the Saint Mary’s Huskies in a close 63-60 game on March 5th at the Scotiabank Centre in order to capture the title.
“I’m just glad for the guys,” said Tigers coach Rick Plato. “We’re like a family; they’re like sons to us [Plato and his wife Anne, the team manager] and I wanted it a lot for them…I’m just very proud of these guys.”
Plato has been coaching since 1981, but said this team is special.
“This may be one of the closest teams I have ever coached.”
The Tigers had to fight to the final buzzer in both of their playoff games in order to win.
The Tigers had a bye through the first round of the playoffs because they finished at the top of the standings. Their first opponent was the Acadia Axemen in the semi-finals. The Tigers looked like they were going to lose when the Axemen were up 75-69 with 37 seconds left in the game. Tigers seniors Kashrell Lawrence and Jarred Reid got five points for the Tigers to get them within a point of Acadia. Then Tigers forward Sven Stammberger stole the ball and got a breakaway dunk to send the crowd into a frenzy. The Tigers locked the game down in the remaining eleven seconds to win the game.
In the championship game, the Tigers were down 39-29 at the end of the first half. The Huskies were forcing the Tigers to shoot threes. The Tigers offence is geared towards getting the ball near the basket for layups instead of outside shooting, so they were not efficient on offence in the first half. The Tigers stormed out of the second half and beat Saint Mary’s 20-6 in the third quarter to gain the lead. The Huskies worked their way back in the fourth quarter and with 18 seconds left, Dalhousie called a timeout with a two-point lead.
During the timeout the building was electric. There was equal support for both Halifax based teams. One of the Tigers fans was banging on a drum throughout the game while a Huskies fan screamed as hard as she could anytime she got on the jumbotron. The Tigers didn’t allow another point and won the game 63-60 to win the AUS title.
Close games are not something new for the Tigers. Last season they beat Saint Mary’s by one point to reach the AUS championship game, and then they beat UPEI by two points to win the championship. Plato said he believes the experience with close games helped because they have been in this situation before and didn’t panic.
Before this game, Tigers players Warren Liang, Alex Carson, Ryan Harnett and Ryall Stroud had never won the AUS championship before. For Stroud, this was his last shot at a university championship. He played his last four seasons at Queen’s and transferred to Dal for his fifth and final year.
“Coming here and winning in your last year is really special,” said Stroud. “I am really thankful for the opportunity this team has given me. It’s been an incredible experience.”
Tigers Ritchie Kanza Mata, Kashrell Lawrence and Sven Stamberger made the AUS championship tournament all-star team. Kanza Mata was named MVP of the tournament as well. Plato had high praise for Kanza Mata.
“If I had first pick in the country I would pick Ritchie over anyone,” said Plato. “The guy has no quit, he works hard, he’s a tremendous leader and he’s a winner.”
Kanza Mata, Lawrence and Reid are the three seniors who have won the three past AUS titles. Reid said winning the third championship is special.
“It means a lot honestly,” said Reid. “It is great to make a little history in the AUS and do what we needed to do.”
The Tigers now move on the U-Sports Final 8, which Dalhousie is hosting at the Scotiabank Centre. The Tigers play their opening quarterfinal game on Thursday, March 9th against the University of Alberta. Alberta is ranked fourth while Dalhousie is ranked fifth coming into this tournament. Saint Mary’s will also be playing in the tournament. The AUS has two spots in the tournament because Dalhousie is guaranteed entry for hosting.
“Even with winning the AUS championship you can tell the goal is to win the national championship,” said Stroud. “Its kind of a championship or bust season and it’s really exciting to be a part of.”