Edmonton, AB – What do you do when you are hosting the national championship, are playing a semifinal game on a Saturday night, with a sold-out building of supporters, against the back-to-back defending national champion who you take to the final shot,
but you lose?
What do you do? How do you react the next night?
That’s the question the Alberta Golden Bears were asked after they fell 64-63 in one of the wildest U SPORTS games of the year against the Carleton Ravens on Saturday at the 2022 U SPORTS Men’s Final 8. Who then had to pick themselves up off the mat to play in the bronze medal game against the OUA Finalist Queen’s Gaels.
Saturday night’s semifinals could best be described as a madhouse.
On one side were the Queen’s Gaels, the darlings of U SPORTS basketball following their upset of Carleton in the Wilson Cup semifinal, in their first national championship against the lower seed Saskatchewan Huskies in the semifinal. The Gaels kept the game tight for a quarter but collapsed in the second and third on the way to an 86-60 blowout loss to Saskatchewan.
That still doesn’t hold a candle to the fate of the Alberta Golden Bears, though. In front of a crowd that grew louder by the second, the Bears duelled the back-to-back defending champion Ravens for 40 minutes. Those two misses at the free-throw line from Tyus Jefferson with 13 seconds left that kept the game at 64-63 Ravens will probably haunt the Golden Bears down the line. That didn’t matter, though; all that mattered was how they would respond.
It might not even be possible to get the Saville Centre as loud as it was for the Ravens and Golden Bears, but the crowd that filled roughly 70% of the building made sure they let the athletes on Queen’s hear it every time they touched. There was no “Behind The Curtain” in the student section that was about 60% full, but there was at least one cymbal which was a new addition.
As the ball tipped off, it looked as though the Gaels shooting woes that plagued them through their matchup with Saskatchewan a night ago were going to come back to haunt them again. Cole Syllas struggled again, finishing with just 8 points on 3-13 shooting on the Gaels.
That meant the mantle was open for someone to step up for the Gaels, and here came Quinton Gray.
Gray, along with a surprising eight-point performance in the quarter from Brandon Aultman, worked to keep the game close after one as it ended 31-20 for the Golden Bears after one quarter.
The Gaels, still disappointed from their stunning loss to Saskatchewan a night ago, knew a better start could have been helpful.
“We did see yesterday as a letdown for sure, just not coming ready to play; we’ve got a lot a lot of young guys who are still learning how to get through those moments,” Gray said.
It looked like more of the same from the Golden Bears through the second quarter. When Adam Paige got a second chance at a 3-pointer that bulged the Golden Bears’ lead to 40-26, it looked like the Gael’s night would be done early again.
The Gaels weren’t quite ready to quit on this game, though.
A 10-0 run in the final four minutes for Queen’s tightened the scoreline at halftime to 41-39 and quieted a raucous Saville Centre crowd.
It was more of the same from Queen’s as Michel-Edouard Jolicoeur drained one of his two three-pointers on the game with six minutes to play in the third to give the Gaels a 51-50 lead.
Even at that moment, the Golden Bears didn’t panic.
“We been doing it all year, yesterday we were down 15 came back down ten came back had a chance to win, and you know this crowd, anytime we go on a run they erupt, give us more energy,” Adam Paige said.
Paige had a fantastic performance in the bronze medal game with a double-double of 17 points and 11 boards. The third quarter ended 65-61 in favour of the Golden Bears. As the fourth quarter moved on, the Golden Bears started to pull away.
When Paige hit a three to push the lead to 77-66, the Saville Centre could feel it coming.
Quinton Gray tried valiantly to will his team back into it. A pair of threes from Gray cut the Golden Bears’ lead to 84-72, but Geoffrey James went back down the court and nailed a three to push it back to 15.
The Golden Bears’ lead was too great; they had done enough to win.
“A bunch of the guys are going to be sore tomorrow because we left it all on the court everything,” Paige said.
With 30 seconds left, head coach Barnaby Craddock subbed off Jefferson. The latter left to cheers of MVP from a standing ovation at the Saville Centre. While he appreciated it, Jefferson had a different view,
“I’d give away all that stuff just to get a team award, man; my team deserves everything. This is the greatest team I’ve ever been a part of,” Jefferson said.
The 2020 U SPORTS Defensive Player of the Year finished with 13 points and five assists in his final game in the Golden Bear green and yellow as the clock hit zeros, the score read 95-84 for Alberta, and a bronze medal was set to be hung on the necks of the Golden Bears.
The Alberta Golden Bears very clearly had dreams of playing for gold in front of a packed-out Saville Centre and bringing the program their first gold medal since 2002. Instead, they settle for their first National medal since 2014 being, a bronze.
“It’s just bittersweet; we wish we were celebrating getting gold, but we got a bronze, and I guess we live with that,” Jefferson said.
Despite the loss for his side, it was Quinton Gray, the other graduating senior, who perhaps inadvertently summed up what this bronze medal match meant for both sides.
“How do you not feel great? We’re at a point where we’ve never been, and I have all the confidence in the world that our younger guys and our leaders that are in the locker room are gonna take this thing to the top.”