Edmonton, AB – “For as yourselves, your empires fall, And every kingdom hath a grave” William Harrington
For the last 20 years, the Carleton Ravens have tightly held the crown in U SPORTS Basketball. The results speak for themselves.
12 of the last 15 Wilson Cups in Ontario.
15 of the last 18 National Championships.
But for the first time, following Carleton’s 86-80 loss in the Wilson Cup semifinal to the Queen’s Gaels, it looked like their grip might be starting to loosen. That perhaps there might be a new heir apparent to the throne in U SPORTS basketball.
On opening night, the Ravens quieted doubts about their seventh seed ranking with a 94-77 win over the #2 Victoria Vikes. The true challenge was to come through in the host Alberta Golden Bears.
The #1 ranked team in the country welcomed the Ravens into their palace at the Saville Centre.
When the buzzer sounded, the score read 64-63 Ravens. They were moving on but not without cost. The Golden Bears with an army of supporters surrounding them took the Ravens to the wall in their semifinal matchup and gave Carleton perhaps the largest punch they had ever received in a challenge to their dominance.
With a basically sold-out Saville Centre draped in yellow and green but with specs of red for Carleton, the second national semifinal tipped off at just after 8:00 pm in Edmonton. With a sea of Alberta fans all in unison, the crowd that tore apart the McGill Redbirds’ confidence shot by shot a night ago seemed prepared to crown their team the new kings of U SPORTS from the start.
Yet, the Golden Bears struggled to get their shots to fall in the first quarter, shooting just 15.4% from the field. That deafening cheers each time a shot hit the bottom of the net were left stilted; it took until four minutes in, when Tyus Jefferson got the hoop and the harm for his first points of the night for the first true seat-shaking cheer to take over. It was the Ravens, though, that ended the first quarter with the 20-9 lead.
The kings seemed comfortable on their throne.
Yet almost as if they decided to wait until the second quarter to flip the switch for the second night in a row, once the second quarter began, the Golden Bears suddenly came alive halfway through. The Ravens built their lead all the way up to 26-14 but a 13-1 run ended in a Brandon Meiklejohn three that tied the game at 27 and sent the Saville Centre into bedlam.
The Golden Bears outscored the Ravens 22-20 in the second quarter, and suddenly at halftime, it was 40-31 for Carleton, but the buzz was back in the air. The building could feel the national finals coming back into view.
The student section that broke out the curtain for free-throw distractions a night ago had it out again for the first half before transitioning to the full-on coordinated waving of the student section in the second half. The amount of fan support for the Golden Bears stood out.
“Looking at the student section, seeing other varsity teams, seeing people you go to class with, then looking at other parents, it was just everyone coming out and supporting us, and you know win or lose, they’re always there supporting us,” Adam Paige said.
Paige had a strong game, with 12 points and a three-pointer, but it was his uncontested two-hand slam that made it 52-48 with 90 seconds to go in the third that nearly had Saville Centre shaking.
Even at that moment, though, the Carleton Ravens were not moved.
“One big thing I told my team before the game is, maintain that trust in one another because we knew coming into this game it was going to be loud.” Lloyd Pandi said.
So there it was, three quarters through, Ravens up 52-48 but for the second quarter in a row, outscored by the Golden Bears.
As T-Shirts flew into the seats and Heave Away blasted through speakers in the third quarter break, the mood was shifting. The Golden Bears were not just going to “challenge” for the crown.
They were going to take it.
It was right there.
Then the Ravens started on a 6-0 run in the first 2:30, and the Golden Bears missed their first four shots.
Suddenly what felt so close was yet again so far, but the Golden Bears were unshaken.
“We had it; the crowd was super loud on our side, we were down 15 at one point, ten at one point we battled back two times, just shows the resilience in our group,” Paige said.
A Geoffrey James three cut it to a seven-point game, and then Brandon Meiklejohn three made it 58-54 with 5:54 remaining.
The Ravens kept pushing as an Alain Louis three pushed it back to seven, but as he fouled out with 2:43 to go, the Golden Bears refused to let the hundreds of fans willing them forward leave into the Edmonton night disappointed
Geoffrey James hit again from deep to make it 64-61 with 53 seconds remaining. It was a strong night for James, who finished 3-10 from deep for 12 points.
Two Tyus Jefferson free throws made it 64-63 with 30 seconds left, but a turnover and a foul by Lloyd Pandi gave the ball back to Jefferson at the free-throw line with 13 seconds left.
The Golden Bears faithful could feel it. The crown was in their grasp.
The first shot went up, miss.
The second shot went up and missed again, but a timeout gave the ball to Alberta with a set play with 13 seconds to go.
The inbound made its way to James, who drove and put it up and, after wacks from Colton Gibb and Adam Paige, watched the ball bounce and bounce and finally bounce off the left side of the rim and out.
That was it, 64-63 Ravens.
The crown was staying with Carleton.
The Carleton Ravens will play for a national championship for the third consecutive season as they move on to Sunday night against the Saskatchewan Huskies. Despite the doubt coming in, the quest for the three-peat allowed the Ravens to focus on a collective goal.
“That’s the only goal, to play for this moment, be in this moment, play for a championship, nothing else,” Pandi said.
The old saying goes, “If you come at the King, you best not miss.” The Alberta Golden Bears faithful chanted “WE WANT CARLETON” on Friday night as the seconds wound down on their quarterfinal win.
On Saturday, they got their wish.
The Golden Bears provided perhaps the best challenge the Ravens have seen since the Rams bested them in the 2018 semifinal but on a night that ended in heartbreak, as Adam Paige said,
“We left it all on the court so you can’t really do anything else other than that.”
Cover Photo: Don Voaklander.