On a night when four of the most influential players in program history were in uniform for the final time, the UNBC Timberwolves played with passion and pride and ended their season with a long-awaited victory.
Saturday at the Northern Sport Centre, the Timberwolves beat the Mount Royal University Cougars of Calgary 83-68 in Canada West men's basketball. The game capped off the UNBC careers of guards Sam Raphael, Jose Araujo, Joel Rybachuk and Francis Rowe and also gave the team its first win of the 2013 calendar year. The T-wolves, a new member of Canada West this season, had been on an 11-game losing streak.
It was clear from the outset of Saturday's contest that the Timberwolves weren't going to be denied a victory.
"We know we've been on a tough losing stretch so we really wanted to finish on a positive note," said Raphael, who had 19 points, five rebounds, one block and one steal. "You only really remember the last thing that you did so it was good to get that win."
UNBC outscored Mount Royal in three of the four quarters, including 26-18 in the fourth. Araujo knocked down 20 points for the T-wolves and Rybachuk had 11 points and four helpers. Rowe, unfortunately, twisted his right ankle in the early stages of a Friday loss to Mount Royal and only played the opening two minutes of Saturday's season finale.
Raphael and his fellow graduates were major contributors in two provincial titles and one national championship when the UNBC team was still part of the Canadian Colleges Athletic Association.
The Timberwolves completed their first Canada West campaign with a 6-16 record, good for sixth-place in the eight-team Pacific Division. Mount Royal, also in its inaugural season at the university level, ended up seventh with a mark of 5-17.
The Timberwolves stood at 5-5 when they entered the Christmas break and, as a top-four team in the division, were in a playoff spot. But, after a landmark 93-90 win against the nationally-ranked Saskatchewan Huskies on Dec. 1, they started the new year with losses to Regina and Brandon -- teams that were beatable -- and fell out of their groove.
"We played a lot of the better teams in the second half," said UNBC head coach Todd Jordan. "That definitely factored into it. And we had a couple situations where we were missing guys. Sam was sick one weekend and Jose had a wedding [to attend] one weekend and those things contributed. Once we lost a couple, we never really mentally recovered. We definitely were playing much better before Christmas but it's a learning experience for us. This level doesn't take any prisoners."
With 1:16 left in Saturday's fourth quarter, Raphael, Araujo and Rybachuk walked off the NSC court for the last time, to the applause and cheers of about 1,400 fans. The Timberwolves finished the game off with five guys who will carry much more substantial loads next season -- third-year forward Dan Stark, second-year guard Billy Cheng and rookies Elliot Rowe, Navjot Bains and Gagan Sahota.
Those last 76 seconds marked the end of one era and the start of another.
"Some walk out the door, some walk in the door," Jordan said. "We've got a high-character group of young guys and we're going to be looking to bring in a number of pieces in the off-season."
See The Citizen later this week for more coverage of UNBC basketball.