The men’s basketball Tigers won their second consecutive AUS championship with an 87-85 victory over the UPEI Panthers at the Scotiabank Centre on Sunday March 6.
The title gives the Tigers back-to-back championships in basketball for the first time in team history.
“It’s surreal, amazing, lovely, spectacular, tremendous any adjective that is a good adjective that’s what it feels like, it’s amazing,” said Kashrell Lawrence, 2015-16 second-team AUS all-star and the AUS championships MVP for the second consecutive season.
The crowd of 3 069 fans created a stellar atmosphere from the opening tip through the final buzzer. The Tigers had a slight advantage in crowd noise but there was a large contingent of Panthers fans in attendance evening out the cheering section for each side.
Most of the volume came from the two schools student sections. Tigers’ fans were decked out in black and gold cheering on their side with the help of the Tiger mascot, thundersticks and a Tigers logo snare drum. Panthers’ fans were clad in green and took an early cue from the Tigers section that they would need to make noise.
The championship game pitted the highest scoring team in the AUS against the leagues stingiest defence. The Panthers averaged 93.3 points per game while the Tigers only surrendered 74.1 per contest.
The high-powered offence took control early on. The Panthers hit their first four three’s and started 6 of 7 from the field on way to building a 20-4 lead with 4:58 left in the first.
“We dug a deep hole early, it looked pretty bleak,” said Tigers head coach Rick Plato, the 2015-16 AUS coach of the year. “We made a key change defensively and it seemed to do the trick and it got us back in the game.”
The Tigers went to a full court press and started to dish out fouls to, “stop the ball,” as Plato kept yelling from the sideline. The strategy worked as it slowed down the fast-paced Panthers attack and they started to miss some shots and turn the ball over.
From there the Tigers offence finally started to click. Jarred Reid had a layup and a three, Sven Stammberger followed that up with a three. 2015-16 AUS rookie of the year Jordan Aquino-Serjue made a layup and Cedric Sanogo dropped a layup and-one as the Tigers closed the gap to 25-17 after the first.
The Tigers kept up the pace in the second quarter. Lawrence made a filthy spin-move to a right hand finish to make it 29-26 and then first year Tigers player Matt McVeigh drilled a three to tie it at 29-29.
McVeigh hit another three to give the Tigers their first lead at 32-31. Then Stammberger capped a 25-8 run for the Tigers with a jumper from the top of the key to make it 34-31.
Plato utilized his depth to keep his starters out of foul trouble throughout the quarter.
The game went into the half with the Panthers up 37-36.
The second half had the fans on the edge of their seats from the start.
The Panthers Tyler Scott nailed a deep three and Stammberger answered right back with a three for the Tigers to make it 40-40.
“I think it was probably more intense for you guys watching,” said Stammberger. “Watching on the sideline or on the bench you can’t do anything about it, on the court you’re in it and you’re playing.”
Finals MVP and 2015-16 first-team AUS all-star Ritchie Kanza Mata stole an inbounds pass and dropped a layup in transition for a 42-40 Tigers lead.
Scott drilled a step back three to put the Panthers back in front 43-42 then another deep three with a hand in his face moments later for 48-44.
Later in the third the Tigers press forced a turnover that led to a Stammberger layup for a 53-52 Tigers lead with 3:49 left in the quarter.
The game got heated for the remainder of the third as some questionable officiating had both benches infuriated.
Aquino-Serjue was called for a foul that appeared to be all ball, Will Yengue was called for a questionable blocking foul. Moments later Yengue was mugged going up for a layup without a call, Lawrence appeared to be fouled on the same possession without a call, before finally Yengue made a layup to tie the game at 57-57.
The Tigers forced a turnover on the next Panthers possession and Lawrence was fouled driving hard to the hoop. The Panthers Lorenzo Parker got banged up on the play and stayed down on the court, while an irate Panthers head coach Tim Kendrick was given a technical foul.
Lawrence made one of two on the original call, Kanza Mata hit the shot for the tech and then Aquino-Serjue drilled a jumper to give the Tigers a four-point swing and take a 61-57 lead into the fourth.
The two teams went back and forth down the stretch taking the game right down to the wire.
The Panthers went on a 6-0 run just over four minutes into the quarter. Brad States finished with a strong layup plus the harm for an old fashioned three-point play. He followed that up with a baseline drive to a monstrous right-handed slam to take a 71-66 lead and send Panthers fans into a frenzy.
Sensing the energy shift the Tigers fans erupted with cheers for their side seconds before Kanza Mata answered for the Tigers with a slick drive to the right hand and-one for a 71-69 score.
Every time the Panthers would take the lead the Tigers came back with a clutch shot of their own.
Aquino-Serjue knocked down a jumper to tie the game at 76-76. Panthers player of the game Milorad Sedlarevic hit a three but Sanogo answered with a three of his own to tie it at 79-79.
States tipped in a rebound to put the Panthers up 81-79 with 1:40 left on the clock. The Tigers fans started chanting ‘Lets go Tigers’ to urge their team on. A couple turnovers later Aquino-Serjue was up to the challenge again drilling another clutch jumper to tie the game at 81-81 with 0:54 on the clock.
“It feels good,” said Aquino-Serjue on being able to make some shots late. “I know coach had confidence in me, he told us we were gonna need to make some big shots down the stretch. I owe it to my team, we just pushed hard and we came up with the win,”
Lawrence fouled out on the next play, another tough call as he and States seemed to touch the ball at the same before colliding. After States hit two free-throws to put the Panthers back up 83-81, Kanza Mata made the play of the game. He let the ball roll to half court before touching it to keep precious seconds from running off the clock. When he finally scooped it up he instantly took a hard drive to the lane, finishing with the right hand and-one to put the Tigers up 84-83.
Sanogo grabbed a defensive board and was fouled with 0:12 left. He hit the first to put the Tigers up 85-83. He missed the second and Stammberger was able to haul in the rebound, the Tigers worked the ball to Kanza Mata who was fouled with 0:08 to go.
Kanza Mata missed the first but hit the second to give the Tigers a three-point lead at 86-83. The Tigers intentionally fouled Scott on the inbound to keep him from being able to shoot a game tying three. He hit both shots to give the Tigers the ball back up 86-85 with 0:05 on the clock.
Stammberger worked the inbound pass to Kanza Mata who was fouled the moment he caught the ball. He missed the first and hit the second to put the Tigers up 87-85 with 0:03 left.
“It was a battle of the heavyweights punch for punch, they were making baskets we came back with our baskets,” said Kanza Mata. “It’s a great experience and that’s what got us this win, is experience because we’ve been here before.”
The Panthers fed their leading scorer Scott to try and tie the game but his attempt from near 40-feet fell well short to seal the Tigers win.
The Tigers and their fans stormed the court in celebration, jumping, hugging and high fiving as ‘Eye of the Tiger’ blasted through the speakers.
Kanza Mata led the Tigers with 21PTS, 8AST, 5STL and 4REB. Lawrence added 14PTS with 7REB, 2STL, 2BLK and 1AST. Sanogo finished with 14PTS, 3REB. Stammberger had 13PTS, 4REB, 3AST and 1STL. Aquino-Serjue chipped in with 10PTS, 3REB, 3AST. Reid came off the bench with 9PTS, 5REB, 3STL and 1AST while McVeigh had 6PTS, 2REB and 1AST.
The Panthers were led by Scott with 23PTS, 6REB, 6AST. Sedlarevic had 17PTS, 4AST, 3REB, 1STL and 1BLK. States finished with 15PTS, 8REB, 4AST, 3BLK and 2STL. Amin Suleman had 12PTS, 5AST, 1REB and 1STL. Dut Dut was a monster in the paint and hauled in 14REB with 5PTS.
Championship all-stars were announced after the game. The Tigers were represented by Lawrence and Kanza Mata, the Panthers by Scott and States, while SMU’s Osman Barrie rounded out the lineup.
The Tigers received the AUS championships trophy and their championship banner to ‘We are the Champions’.
Up next for the Tigers is the CIS Men’s Basketball Final 8 championship, being hosted March 17-20 by the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C.
After losing their quarterfinal game by one-point in last years CIS championships the Tigers are ready to get back to the dance.
“We’re gonna make some noise at nationals,” said Lawrence. “This year it’s wide open, there’s no team that’s the forerunner so we have as good a chance as anybody.”
Plato is on the same page as his players.
“We are going to win,” he said.