Edmonton, AB – It’s been a long time since it could last be said, but the Carleton Ravens entered the nationals championships in 2022 faced with a new feeling.
Not doubt about the legacy of the Ravens that has seen them win 12 of the last 15 Wilson Cup championships and 15 of the previous 18 national championships. Rather doubt that maybe, for the first time, the Ravens 20 year run of dominance was at risk of coming to an end.
With their 94-77 win over the Victoria Vikes on Friday night, the Ravens proved that the kings of U SPORTS are not ready to give up the throne for at least one more night.
Entering the nightcap on Friday at the 2022 U SPORTS Men’s Final 8, all eyes were rightfully on the Ravens. For the first time since 2006, Carleton missed out on the Wilson Cup final following an 86-80 loss in the semifinal to the Queen’s Gaels. Thanks to their 14-0 regular-season record, though, Carleton earned the at-large berth in the #7 seed.
Matched up against them was the Canada West champion #2 Victoria Vikes. The Vikes calling card across the 2021-2022 season, finishing with the top three-point percentage in the country. It carried them to their 16th Canada West title with a win over the Alberta Golden Bears in the Canada West Final.
It looked like it would indeed be a duel from outside in the first quarter. Aiden Warnholtz hit three from beyond the arc to get 10 points in the first quarter for Carleton, while Scott Kellum put up 10 points to lead Victoria and hit two of his own from deep.
As the second quarter moved forward, the Ravens started to find a bit of separation, but Victoria certainly did not help themselves. The country’s top team from deep in 2021-2022 went just 3/17 in the half, ultimately from behind the arc, as they struggled mightily in the second quarter.
Many of the issues came from Diego Maffia, who led Victoria with 17 points per game in the Canada West regular season. The second-year decided only to keep putting up three-pointers, eight in total in the quarter, but only hit one, leaving him with just three points at halftime as Victoria trailed 51-38.
“We came out of the gates slow, and we just had to crawl back the whole game and crawling back; you have to play a perfect game,” Maffia said.
Into the second half the stifling Ravens defence continued. The country’s top-ranked defence, that allowed just 60 points-per-game in 2021-2022 kept one of the sharpest shooting teams in the country to just 40% from the field and 19% from 3-point range through two and a half quarters. Victoria continued to hurt themselves as well shooting under 50% from the free throw line through three quarters.
A late Maffia three-ball cut the lead to 10 at 71-61, and he added another with 10 seconds left to cut it to 73-64, where it held to the end of the third.
Suddenly that doubt was creeping back in.
Could the Ravens hold off Victoria?
Would Carleton lose in the national quarterfinals for the first time since 2001?
But just as the doubt started to creep back in, the Ravens opened the fourth quarter on a 7-0 run, punctuated by a Nelson Cilien fast-break layup with 8:04 to go that punched the Raven lead up to 16.
“We’re a team that hates losing … You saw guys out there who didn’t want to lose. Sometimes it’s that simple,” Ravens Head Coach Taffe Charles said.
Elias Ralph, the Canada West Rookie of the Year, fought valiantly to get his side back in it, hitting a pair of threes to finish with 16 points for the Vikes, but it was too late. By the time the buzzer sounded, it was 92-77, a win that was both closer and yet further apart than it seemed from the scoreline.
The Victoria Vikes have at least one game left as they play McGill in the consolation semifinal. The Redbirds had a nightmare second quarter against Alberta as they were outscored 33-8. Still, they otherwise held their own against the Golden Bears.
Carleton moves on to play Alberta in the national semifinals. As the Golden Bears were finishing up their victory against McGill, a half dozen Ravens stepped out of the locker room to watch the closing minutes and were greeted with chants of “WE WANT CARLETON” from the noisy Alberta crowd.
For the Ravens, though, it’s nothing they are not used to.
“The crowd will get us up … It’s gonna be a great, great atmosphere. We’ve been involved in that kind of stuff before. We’ve got guys who really relish that,” Charles said.
For the first time in a long time, the Carleton Ravens faced doubts about the strength of their grip over U SPORTS basketball. For at least one night, the naysayers might be quieted, but for the rest of the tournament, as coach Charles said to his players,
“Anything that’s worth anything is not going to be easy.”