Edmonton, AB – It really had to be like this, didn’t it?
If the question about the Raven was to be answered, about their future, about the grip they held on U SPORTS basketball, an answer couldn’t have been made if they had lost in the quarterfinal to Victoria. Or even if the ball had bounced another way a night ago and the Alberta Golden Bears were hosting the national final.
The Ravens needed to be put to the test on the national stage.
The place where they’ve shone brightest. For the last 20 years, the place where players have come through the Carleton program to try and reach. The opportunity to play for the true right to be called the best team in Canada.
They say that heavy hangs the head that wears the crown.
On Sunday night at the Saville Centre on the campus of the University of Alberta, the Carleton Ravens found themselves yet again under the brightest of lights of the Canadian basketball stage in the 2022 U SPORTS Men’s Basketball Final 8 National Championship game against the upstart Saskatchewan Huskies. But, with an 85-72 win, the way they have done for so many years Carleton proved why they are who they are and why the title of U SPORTS champions will go back to its rightful home at the Raven’s Nest.
As the seventh seed, the Carleton Ravens were officially the higher seed and the home team, but you wouldn’t be able to tell if you looked around the Saville Centre. Already decorated in green as the home of the Alberta Golden Bears, Alberta and Saskatchewan fans came out in numbers, letting out raucous cheers on every Huskies basket.
Frankly, Saskatchewan entered the National Final as the team no one expected to be there. Written off before their quarterfinal matchup, they stunned the #1 seed Brock Badgers 77-73 before thumping the #5 Queen’s Gaels in the semifinal 86-60 to book their spot in the national championship. With a meeting on the biggest stage in the country, against a team that had made their residence there, this Huskies side looked to be the ones who could go from being the newest underdog story of U SPORTS to the new champions of U SPORTS.
The first quarter saw the Huskies go shot for shot with the Ravens. Riding the adrenaline of an Edmonton crowd very clearly on their side, the Huskies stormed out to a 9-2 lead in the opening four minutes. An 11-4 run finished off with a Wazir Latiff three-ball tied the game at 13-13 as the Ravens slowly settled into their rhythm. Still, the crowd hummed as they could almost feel something special happening.
When Alexander Dewar hit a three to tie the game at 19-19, the building erupted similar to the night before in the Ravens cage match 64-63 victory over the host Alberta Golden Bears. A late Aiden Warnholtz three made it 22-21 for the Ravens at the end of one, but once again, that doubt was starting to creep up.
Carleton suddenly looked very vulnerable; the Huskies were going shot for shot with the two-time defending national champions. Perhaps on this night, something special could happen?
Yet, as the clock flipped to the second quarter, so seemingly did the Ravens. Back-to-back Aiden Warnholtz threes pushed the lead up to 34-25, and the Ravens seemed to be back.
“You just tell each other to trust ourselves, dig in and try to get stops; we understood that they were going to come here and punch us in the mouth,” Lloyd Pandi said.
The Huskies had a problem as well.
The adrenaline rush that powered the Huskies’ first quarter was masking the worst first half that Marquavian Stephens had had all tournament. The third-year guard who was electric with 25 points in the Huskies semifinal win over the Gaels was held with just two points, and zero made field goals through the first half.
As he struggled to find his shot, so did the rest of Saskatchewan, and the Ravens began to pull away. By the time halftime hit, it was 45-31 for the Ravens, and suddenly the magic felt like it was gone.
“It wasn’t a strong half for us; we knew it, our coaches knew, but we were only down 14 points,” Alexander Dewar said.
“So it was good and bad news, bad news we were down 14 points, good news we didn’t play our best basketball, so we wanted to come out and show what our best basketball looked like.”
Dewar saved his best performance of the weekend for the National Championship, dropping 27 points for the Huskies, working to meet the moment that he hadn’t even fully processed.
“It was just that kind of surreal feeling, know that today is the national championship, a moment that we’ve been looking forward to as kids as a team, a moment we’ve been looking forward to all year,” Dewar said.
As the first half turned to the second, an 18-0 run in the first six minutes of the third quarter for the Ravens brought the Saville Centre almost to silence, and the Ravens to a mind-boggling 32 point lead 63-31.
The absolute shock was written on the face of the entire Huskies bench. Everything they worked for looked to be slipping away in an unfathomable fashion.
Even at that moment, Coach Jacobson knew his Huskies team was not going to go down that easily.
“They knew that they had to come out and fight, those guys, they’re never going to go quietly,” Jacobson said.
And suddenly, with just minutes left in the third quarter, there was life.
Marquavian Stephens had been unable to get anything to fall on the night. By the time the third quarter rolled around, the star guard was sitting on 0-13 from the field for the Huskies. With 1:45 to go in the third, he drove straight at Ravens guard Cordell Veira, rose up and drilled his first three-pointer of the night to cut the game to 63-40.
Then he hit again.
And then he hit again.
Within 60 seconds, a 26 points game had been sliced to a 17 point game at 63-46, where it stayed into the third quarter.
“Whether my shots are hitting or not, my teammates they believe in me,” Stephens said. He finished with 16 points on the night, but those back-to-back threes, part of a 15-0 run to close the quarter for the Huskies, injected life back into Saskatchewan and injected life back into the Saville Centre.
The third quarter break brought t-shirts out to fire up the crowd, and the iconic “Don’t Stop Believing” blasting over the speakers suddenly felt like a familiar retread. Once again, the Carleton Ravens would have to fight to the end, but they felt prepared for it.
“We just had to trust the game-plan because at one point it was working; we were up 30,” Pandi said. “Even though you don’t want to admit it, at one point, we started getting complacent, and they started hitting shots.”
Once again, in the fourth quarter, the Ravens started with the foot on the gas, but right when they had the Huskies on the ropes, they could not seem to land the knockout punch that Ravens’ teams of past had found.
A 10-4 run in the first 4:21 of the fourth quarter had the game up to 75-50 for the Ravens. But with Ravens’ eyes on their Three-Peat completely took them off of the court.
The Huskies hit three-pointer after three-pointer as the Saville Centre grew louder and louder, and with 1:40 to play, it was 79-70 for the Ravens.
“We wanted the game to be over; we didn’t play the whole 40 minutes,” head coach Taffe Charles said.
It was Lloyd Pandi, though, coming off a U SPORTS Basketball Player of the Year award on Wednesday, who made a layup that pushed the lead up to double-digits at 81-70 with 90 seconds to play, and after Tyrese Potoma missed a three-pointer to cut it to an eight-point game that was it. The Ravens rode down the clock, and when it hit zero, it was 85-72 for the Ravens.
Carleton were the champions again.
The Ravens have celebrated a lot of championships over the years, they have lifted the W.P McGee now 16 teams since 2002, but they might have never been a more difficult 120 minutes of basketball than they faced in 2022 to get to the title.
“We’re usually ranked one, and everybody has some type of fear, but this year nobody had any fear,” Alain Louis said. “Everybody came at us, and I think it was good for the young guys because now they’re gonna be ready.”
The prevailing theme for the Carleton Ravens coming into the 2022 Men’s Final 8 was doubt.
Doubt in themselves, doubt in their strength, belief that the Raven program that had been the face of Canada for over two decades was finally beginning to fade.
The Ravens may not have put all the doubts to rest with their performance across three games, but it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that the Ravens stood at centre court for the 16th time in the last 19 seasons and raised the W.P McGee trophy above their heads.
“A lot of people said we couldn’t do it, a lot of people said we weren’t as talented as the rosters of the past,” Lloyd Pandi said.
“This is what you come to Carleton for, to live and experience this type of success.”