St. Catharines, ON – The Bob Davis Gymnasium was full and loud on Saturday Mar. 26 for the Wilson Cup finals. The Brock Badgers men’s basketball team had made their presence known on the OUA scene in recent years – most notably under former head coach Charles Kissi. The Badgers had enjoyed playoff success and reached nationals under Kissi but now Kissi was gone (he’s an assistant at Fort Erie in G League) and they were hosting an OUA finals.
Brock head coach Willy Manigat could be heard telling his team before the opening tip to play their game, reminding them they knew who they were as a basketball team. They were the OUA West champions, having only lost once this season to McMaster before avenging that defeat to the Marauders in the OUA semi-finals.
They were led by Manigat behind the bench, who was named the OUA West Coach of the Year. On the court, they were led by Tajinder (TJ) Lall, a Carleton transfer, OUA West MVP and OUA West First-Team All-Star. They were joined by fellow all-star Kascius Small-Martin and fellow veterans Daniel Cayer, Daniel Caldwell, Emmanuel Owootoah and Godsman Kwakwah. They were aided by rookies and NCAA transfers Brandon Charles and Isaiah Bujdoso.
On Saturday, they all made an impact. Brock started the game strong, pushing the ball up the floor with multiple players. The Badgers stretched the floor, which allowed their three-point shooters and drivers to go to work. Lall made a steal and ran it the other way and dunked it to give them a 13-8 lead. Second-year forward Jordan Tcheunte scored inside.
Meanwhile, Small-Martin, Kwakwah and Caldwell were deadly from deep. Small-Martin hit two threes, Kwakwah hit three and Caldwell nailed all four of his attempts. Lall also showed his versatility, shooting four-for-seven from beyond the arc.
The Gaels battled hard to keep the score within striking distance with some outside shooting of their own and the scoring efforts of Cole Syllas (18 points), Henry Van Herk (18) and Quinton Gray (12). Syllas (37 minutes), Gray (38) and Isaac Krueger (34) all played most of the game.
However, despite their efforts, the home side stayed ahead, up 45-33 at halftime. The lead would grow in the second half. Lall showed off his wide array of skills – his vision, flow within the offence, ball-handling and shooting – hitting a couple of tough fadeaways to bring the crowd to its feet. The Badgers continued to rebound and push and share the ball, leading to good looks from three for Caldwell and Kwakwah, who hit them.
A quick run punctuated by a Lall dunk before Kwakwah and Caldwell nailed back-to-back triples pushed the score up to 80-62, prompting Queen’s head coach Steph Barrie to call timeout. The Badgers kept onto the lead and were soon celebrating their 95-75 win and the Wilson Cup championship.
As the fourth quarter wound down, Manigat could be heard telling his team to enjoy the moment but that their work was not done.
The win was a breakthrough one for Manigat and his team. It was Brock’s first Wilson Cup since 1992 and Manigat’s first as a head coach after winning OUA and national titles as a player and assistant coach at Carleton.
It was also about the day-to-day culture of the program. “Just going one day at a time, one practice at a time, one meeting at a time,” Manigat said of building that culture. “Just like in a basketball game, it’s one possession at a time, this was one game at a time. We just go to this office and we talk about working all the time.”
Manigat played and coached under former Carleton coach Dave Smart in the Carleton system for numerous years. He himself was a OUA all-star once upon a time. Since taking over as Brock’s head coach, the team went 12-10 in his first year in 2019-20 before losing in the first round of the playoffs. Now they’ve captured a Wilson Cup. While he takes his past experiences with him, Manigat is quick to point out that the focus for him is about the Badgers and not the Ravens.
“Obviously you learn stuff and you come in and you just adjust and build your own culture based on the experiences you had,” he said. “This is not about Carleton. I don’t want to talk about Carleton. This is about Brock and these guys buying into what we do here. The only thing that matters to me is that they bought in and we’re here because of that.”
Manigat has had success recruiting since he took over in St. Catharines, bringing in former Ravens Owootoah and Lall. He brought in NCAA transfers in Charles, Budjoso and William Boyer-Richard as well as Tchuente from Olney Central College in Illinois. He was also joined by veterans in Caldwell, Cayer and Kwakwah who were already there and played at nationals in 2018 under Kissi.
The talent brought in was evident but so are the intangibles. “They keep fighting and they keep listening to me and our coaching staff and they keep holding each accountable,” Manigat said. “When you do that, there’s going to be growth and I think that’s where we’re celebrating that growth. Hopefully they’re going to understand that there’s way more growth to come.”
Small-Martin echoes Manigat’s thoughts and said the team’s identity is defined through hard work every day. “Everyone knows how to play,” he added. “We just bring it together and we just feel unstoppable.”
The guard praised Manigat and said he loves having him as a coach. “He’s tough but tough for the right reasons,” he continued. “You can’t complain about it. He just wants you to be better day in and day out and he’s definitely made me the player I am today.”
Small-Martin has continued to grow in his four seasons with the program. From being a notable bench player in his rookie year as the Badgers made nationals to becoming a key starter and OUA all-star. “Unreal,” he called the experience of winning the Wilson Cup. “My experience here, three coaches in three years [Kissi, Madhav Trivedi, Manigat], and to have one to finally stay and go through something big like this is huge.”
Lall was the standout of the night, as important of an addition as any for the Badgers – with his play and his leadership. During the game (a team-high 27 points and eight rebounds) and in the trophy presentation, he was mobbed by his teammates and received “MVP” chants from the crowd.
After the game, he praised Manigat. He credited his gameplay against Queen’s, which the players followed. Lall also said while Manigat is hard on the players, he’s good at motivating them and can relate to them having been a university player himself.
Lall knew Manigat from their days at Carleton, when Lall was a young player and Manigat was an assistant coach. Manigat told him to come to Brock, according to Lall. Given their coach-player relationship and Brock’s proximity to his home (he’s from Cambridge), he chose the Badgers.
His impact has been noticed by teammates and coaches. “He’s a hooper,” Small-Martin noted. “He’s about his business, gets the job done, pushes me to get the job done. I’m happy he’s a part of our squad.”
Barrie called him arguably the best player in Canada and while the Gaels studied his performance on tape, they were unable to affect it. “He’s just our leader,” Manigat said. “He’s a guy that we trust and honestly, he’s came into a situation that needed leadership and he’s doing exactly that and that’s exactly what we need for this program.”
Now, after winning two national and three OUA championships at Carleton, Lall has a Wilson Cup in his final year at Brock as well. Before he leaves Brock and goes pro, he’ll have to chance to win another national title as well.
Going into nationals, the Badgers figure to be as good a team as any in the field. They will have a top two seed and will have legitimate national titles hopes. They will also have individuals with nationals experience in Caldwell, Cayer, Kwakwah, Lall and Owootoah as well as Manigat.
Manigat said the veteran experience is helpful. Lall said it helps them stayed composed.
“When the other team goes on runs, we’re able to stay calm,” he added. There are also important things the team can take from the OUA season into nationals. For instance, the constant defensive intensity needed to succeed at nationals, according to Lall.
The team will fly out to Edmonton with hopes of capturing the ultimate prize. On a rainy night in St. Catharines, they savoured the happiness of a OUA championship before that.
“We’re just trying to enjoy this moment right now and then we’ll talk about nationals,” Manigat said after cutting the net in celebration. “Today, we’re just happy to celebrate. These guys enjoy it and we’re going to enjoy it and then after that we’ll talk about nationals tomorrow.”
Lall knows from experience the advice he’s sharing with teammates going in. “Now it’s time to just play basketball,” he said. “Don’t think about too much stuff. We’re already this far. We are who we are and we’re just going to give it our all.”
Featured Photo: Mackenzie Gerry/Brock Athletics