Edmonton, AB – “They laughed at Louis Armstrong when he said he was gonna go to the moon Now he’s up there, laughing at them” – Will Ferrell Blades of Glory (2007)
In the Friday night quarterfinal matchup at the Men’s Final 8 between the host Alberta Golden Bears and the McGill Redbirds, a Blades of Glory homage was just one of the many stunts the U of A student section pulled out to distract McGill free throws. With an 85-68 win, the Bears proved that if anyone doubted them following their Canada West Finals loss, this is still very much the team that was ranked first in U SPORTS across the majority of the year.
Entering their quarterfinal matchup, the #3 Golden Bears stood as the finalist from Canada West following a tight loss against the Victoria Vikes. For McGill, they entered as RSEQ champions following a 48-46 win over Concordia, the lowest-scoring final in RSEQ history.
With “RSEQ vs the Rest” emblazoned on their warmup gear, the Redbirds entered the night looking to dispel the notion that the six-team Quebec conference might not be up to the same standard as the rest of U SPORTS.
According to fifth-year guard Jamal Mayali, the shirts were part of a statement.
“We feel like our conference isn’t as respected as it should be, and we wanted to come out and prove something and leave it out on the floor and show that we can compete with these guys,” Mayali said.
In front of a deafening crowd at the very close-to-sold-out Saville Centre, each Redbird’s miss led to seat-shaking cheers from the hundreds of U of A students in attendance but early on, it looked like McGill might be pulling off something special. The first quarter saw Sam Jenkins drop five points, but it was Jamal Mayali, having led the Redbirds in scoring all year, putting up 11 in the first quarter as McGill entered the break with an 18-15 lead.
Once the – one – on the scoreboard changed to a two, though, everything changed. The Redbirds offence that started the game tentatively well could suddenly not hit a shot, and the Golden Bears took advantage, to the bellowing delight of the Golden Bears fans spread across the Saville Centre.
Tyus Jefferson, coming off winning the U SPORTS Defensive Player of the Year Award a night ago, demonstrated why he also picked up Canada West Player of the Year to go with his DPOY in 2022. The fifth-year guard picked up 12 points in the quarter, and after flexing following a two and one that pushed the Bears’ lead to 20, the chants of MVP rang out across the Bears’ home court, and the party was on.
By the time the bloodbath of the second quarter was over, the damage was a 33-8 run for the Golden Bears and a 22 point lead of 48-26 for Alberta at the half.
Into the second half, the Redbirds finally found the ability to shoot again. Jamal Mayali had three triples in the third quarter, including one in the final minute, to cut the lead to 68-49, and added another layup right at the buzzer to bring it to a 17 point game.
“They got the better of us down the stretch, but we had a little cushion built up, so we managed to hold on.” Alberta Head Coach Barnaby Craddock said.
In the fourth quarter, as the U of A free throw distractions became more unhinged (including a Golden Bear literally choking a Redbird), the lead slowly got closer. Three free throws from Mayali with five minutes to go cut it to 15 at 70-55, but Geoffrey James three a minute later pushed it back.
Mayali had a game-high 31 points as he tried desperately to claw the Redbirds back into the game, but there was not enough time after what will go down as the worst second quarter of their season for McGill.
“I played well. I left it all on the floor. It’s my last year, so I didn’t want to have any stones unturned. I gave it my best.” Mayali said.
The Golden Bears move on to the U SPORTS semifinal against the Carleton Ravens and the Victoria Vikes winner. As the seconds ticked away, the Golden Bears faithful chanted “We Want Carleton” at the Ravens, who had stepped out of the locker room to watch the end of the match.
Louis Armstrong might not have gone to the moon at the end of it all, but the Alberta Golden Bears are going back to the Men’s Final 8 semifinal.
And for whoever they face, that’s no laughing matter.