After nearly two months between games, the UNBC Timberwolves men’s basketball troops hit the ground running Sunday afternoon at the Northern Sport Centre.
And no better opponent than the undefeated UBC Thunderbirds to get those game juices flowing again.
Success seems to follow the T-birds wherever they go, whatever the season - it’s an unshakable habit for one of the winningest programs in the 50-year university sports history of the Canada West Conference. With 10 wins to show for their 10 games so far this season heading into Prince George, the No. 5-ranked team in Canada was the perfect gauge to measure how far the T-wolves have progressed since the season started back in early November.
Both teams were missing a couple of key cogs in the lineup either due to COVID issues or border problems and, amazingly enough, for the entire opening half UNBC showed no signs of rust, keeping it a one-possession game while matching the T-birds step for step.
No so in the third quarter. Not with Grant Audu making magic happen on the court. The fourth-year guard from Toronto singlehandedly played the role of destroyer and netted nine of his team’s 29 points in the third quarter for a 67-52 lead.
Once they smelled blood, there was no stopping the T-birds, who improved to 11-0 with a 93-74 victory, their third win this season at the NSC.
“Both teams were down a couple of guys and that obviously that changes the dynamics of both teams considerably, but I think for the next few weeks COVID’s going to have an impact on a lot of teams whether they’re practicing or eligible to play,” said UBC head coach Kevin Brown.
“Our guys were excited about playing a game and they did some really good things and (the T-wolves) played really hard and did some good things, and our defence wasn’t where it needed to be. When things aren’t going well, you need your experienced guys have to play well, and Audu had a great third quarter.”
Audu led the T-bird cause with 22 points and James Woods finished with 21, each contributing a trio of threes. Spencer Ledoux shot a team-high 18 points for UNBC while Tyrell Laing collected 16 and had seven assists, using Ledoux as his primary target. Laing had 11 points in the first half but was unable to maintain his usual torrid scoring pace.
With UNBC guard Vova Pluzhnikov on the tail end of his isolation period after testing positive for COVID, Peyton Tirrell stuck at home Washington state because of flight postponements, and Rory Godwin and David Tiessen also sidelined, second-year guard Darren Hunter drew his first start in UNBC colours and wing Chris Ross played all but 92 seconds of a 40-minute in the game.
“With only seven or eight guys in the rotation we kind of got gassed,” said Hunter, who picked up nine points. “I was happy to have my first start but, sad circumstances, I’d rather get it in a different way and earn it myself. I can’t say I was happy with how I played, but happy that I did play lots. We kind of fell apart in that third quarter.”
COVID-related issues plagued the T-wolves’ camp during the extended seven-week break and the diversion of finally getting to play again reminded them about the thrill of playing varsity basketball.
“It’s a bit of break in the norm, “ said Ross, who had 10 points. “The past three weeks have been crazy for us with all the COVID situations and so many guys out, so it was just great to get out there and play. I played a lot of minutes and it was fun but I definitely missed the teammates.
“We’ve been working lots with our offence and I felt I had a good flow and we came put with some defensive intensity. We matched them for the first minute of the second half and then it was just a combination of energy and intensity and they just kept rolling guys and we didn’t have the pace to keep up with them.”
The T-birds were missing starting six-foot-10 forward Sukhman Sandhu, a 56 per cent three-point shooter, and fourth-year guard Triston Matthews, both home observing COVID protocols. That gave the likes of Woods, Brian Wallack, Jack Cruz-Dumont, Lincoln Rosebush, Esaie Maurancy and Kyle Foreman more court time and their efforts to pressure the T-wolves led to turnovers converted into 21 of UBC’s 93 points.
“The big difference in the game with us being down a couple guys and they’re a pretty deep squad and I think we just ran out of fuel late in the game,” said T-wolves head coach Todd Jordan. “I’m pretty proud of the guys though. I think thee were a lot of positive things against a quality opponent. When we executed our stuff, got the ball where we wanted, we were able to score with them.”
The T-wolves’ record sank to 2-7 and they’ve now lost five straight. Three of their losses were to UBC and two came at the hands of Victoria, ranked No. 8 in Canada. They’ll try to reverse the trend this weekend when they travel to Kelowna to face the UBC-Okanagan Heat (1-7).
The UNBC women, 77-66 losers to the Heat in Kelowna on Saturday, will also be there for two games this weekend.