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UNBC Timberwolves advance to Canada West semifinals with stunning 84-78 win over Manitoba

They'll take on No. 1-ranked Victoria Vikings in men's basketball semifinal Saturday night in Winnipeg

For the first time in the city’s basketball history, Prince George has a team that’s going to be playing for a Canada West Conference medal.

The UNBC Timberwolves pulled off a stunning 84-78 quarterfinal win over the Manitoba Bisons Thursday night in Winnipeg.

The T-wolves will advance to a semifinal matchup Saturday afternoon against the Victoria Vikings, the top-ranked U SPORTS team in the country.

How did they get there?

By baffling the Bisons with a switch to a zone defence that turned the game in the T-wolves’ favour in the late stages. They didn’t shy away from the Bisons’ physicality and instead got in their opponents faces, stood in for the punishment and took it on the chest and it worked, leading to foul trouble for their opponents and scoring opportunities the T-wolves turned into money.

“They’re a good team, they’re going to go on their runs for sure, and a big part of it was a call from coach Todd to put in a zone and that really helped, that slowed them down a bit,” said T-wolves graduating forward Spencer Ledoux.

 “A big focus for us was rebounds and it wasn’t fantastic throughout the game but it was a lot better through the second half. At the end of the fourth we just went full zone and they really couldn’t deal with it.”

They outscored Manitoba 24-15 in the fourth quarter.

The T-wolves were not in perfect sync through much of the first half. They gave up too many offensive rebounds and were outscored 27-19 through the first period. They evened the count at 42-42 by the intermission, but it was obvious at that point to coach Todd Jordan they needed to ditch some of their man-to-man coverage to ripple the Bisons’ rhythm.

“In the first quarter there were stretches when we turned the ball over a bunch of times and they were able to run out and get some transition layups that hurt us,” said Jordan. “We took a little bit better care of the basketball and we ended up playing a bit of zone that changed the rhythm of the game for us.

“They were ahead most of the game and we were able to pull ahead late, so it was pretty awesome for the boys. They stuck it out and played really hard. There were a bunch of times it wasn’t looking great and they just stuck with it and we were able to pull ahead late and win the game.”

Manitoba led by as much as five points with 5:39 left in the fourth quarter when fifth-year guy Chris Ross put together some late-game heroics that left a sinking feeling in the stomachs of the Bisons and their fans in the half-full Investors Group Athletic Centre.

Ross started it with a steal and was fouled and made good on both free throw attempts. That led to a Ledoux jump shot and a Justin Sunga shot trey that tied the game 73-73 with 3:25 left.

Then with a Bison draped all over him, Ross somehow made the perfect layup and turned that into a three-point play which gave the T-wolves a lead they would not relinquish.

“I don’t know how he got the ball in the hoop but he did, it was a really big shot,” said Ledoux. “He was driving and he got fouled and it looked to me like he just threw it up, but it was a perfect layup. It was an iffy take throughout the whole thing but it was an absolute bucket that put us up.”

The 23-year-old Ledoux was able to use his big body to score from under the net and hit timely shots on his way to a 22-point game.

Sunga continued the tone he set in Wednesday’s 10-point win over top-ranked UBC and his double-double – 16 points, 10 assists – derailed the Bisons. Darren Hunter (14 points), Evgeny Baukin (11 points, five assists), Gillespie (12 points, two blocks) were also key contributors.

Bisons forward Simon Hildebrand, who finished with 20 points, was unable to connect on back-to-back three attempts in the late stages and  with only about a minute left and the Bisons forced to foul, Sunga and Josh Gillespie made them pay with foul shot swishes that kept the T-wolves in command.

Daren Watts had 23 points and nine rebounds to lead the Bisons. Cieran O'Hara collected 13 rebounds.

The teams will take a day off to rest their weary bones before the semifinal shooting begins on Saturday.

“We knew we have a better team than our record showed, we struggled throughout the season sometimes not playing to our best, but we knew where we could be and that we can play with anyone in this league if we’re at our best,” said Ledoux. “Victoria will be our toughest challenge all year but we’ve been playing pretty well and they’ve been playing well and we’ll see.”

Game highlights are available here.

The Vikings defeated the Brandon Bobcats 98-85 in their quarterfinal.

The other semifinal matchup (6 p.m. PT) pits the Calgary Dinos against the Winnipeg Wesmen. Calgary beat Alberta Golden Bears 76-70, while Winnipeg walloped Fraser Valley Cascades 96-69.

The semifinal winners meet for gold Sunday at 6 p.m. PT, with the bronze-medal game set for 4 p.m.