Ottawa, ON – With just under three minutes to go in the first quarter, BlackJacks forward Deng Adel sent a lead pass to Walt Lemon Jr before Lemon Jr gave it right back to Adel, who quickly drove by Fraser Valley’s Ty Rowell in the paint before laying it in with his left hand.
The basket pushed the BlackJacks’ lead to 19-13 and the Bandits into a timeout. It capped an 11-2 BlackJacks run – nine of which came from Adel – and for the first time in 2022, brought the sizeable crowd of just over 2000 at The Arena at TD Place to their feet.
It was one of the first of many moments on the night that the 25-year-old – fresh off of a 16 game run with the NBA G-League Maine Celtics in the 2021-2022 season – had to impress in his CEBL debut finishing with 37 points on 14/16 shooting, nine rebounds and five assists.
“He’s was as good in that game as we’ve seen a player be in this league.” BlackJacks coach Charles Dubé-Brais said.
Even despite a franchise-record night, a BlackJacks team that was the surprise member of the 2021 CEBL Final Four in Edmonton a year ago got a reality check on how hard it will be to get to Championship Weekend on their court in August as Adel fouled out partway through the ELAM ending and the Bandits pulled out the 90-87 win.
“We left a lot of things on the table tonight because I thought we were in control for most of it, and we just let them hang around,” Dubé-Brais said.
As is the tradition in the CEBL, U SPORTS representation was up and down the rosters on both sides. Former U SPORTS basketball legend (and 2021 Ottawa BlackJack) Kadre Gray joined Alex Campbell (Windsor) and Chris McLaughlin (Victoria) in the Fraser Valley starting lineup. On the other side, 2021-2022 OUA Defensive Player of the year Maxime Boursiquot (Ottawa Gee-Gees) started for the BlackJacks while 2022 U SPORTSxCEBL pick Nervens Demosthene (Saskatchewan) came off the bench for Ottawa.
Following Adel, two late threes from Demosthene to end the first pushed the BlackJacks’ lead to 27-21. Overall it was a respectable debut in black and red for the 2022 U SPORTS Silver Medalist. It was April when Demosthene last saw game action in the Saskatchewan Huskies U SPORTS Final 8 Gold Medal loss to the Carleton Ravens and finished with nine points off of 3/3 shooting from deep and two rebounds.
The night for the BlackJacks, from start to finish, though, belonged to Adel. With the BlackJacks’ lead trimmed to five at 46-41 coming out of halftime, Adel hit one of his seven threes in the game to open the third. Two minutes later, he drove into the paint, pulling a second help defender in Ty Rowell to cover him but consequently leaving Cody John wide open in the corner, who nailed a three to push the BlackJacks to its largest at 55-43.
Despite the deficit, the Bandits never wavered in the idea that they could come back.
“We just kinda said let’s keep playing,” Bandits guard Kadre Gray said. “You know everybody’s new to the league, first game, jitters, all those things play a factor, but I mean, just have faith, and we took care of business.”
The 24-year-old Gray, who spent the 2021 CEBL season in Ottawa, took over in the third quarter for the Bandits with 13 points and three assists to finish with 17 on the night as Fraser Valley ended the quarter on a 14-5 run to cut it to 68-64.
For Bandits head coach Mike Taylor who joined the CEBL after 20 years of experience in Europe and seven years leading the Polish National Program (2014-2021), the value of players like Gray who have gone through the CEBL program before is immense.
“I’ve relied on guys like Alex, Kadre, Malcolm, our veteran players,” Taylor said. “Being new to the league, there’s always some different small things that mean a lot, so we’re fortunate to have that kind of experience.”
A back and forth fourth quarter found the game cut to 80-79 for the BlackJacks as the clock crossed the four-minute mark, stopped, and the ELAM ending began. The ELAM ending (the current leading score + nine, meaning 89 was the total a team needed to win) saw both sides battle to 87-87 after Adel took an offensive foul at 83-83 to foul out. It was former Windsor Lancer Alex Campbell, though, who hit a fading three-point game-winning shot that silenced the loud TD Arena crowd.
“The Blackjacks had two really good opportunities to finish it; the ball bounced our way,” Coach Taylor said. “I’ll tell everybody that’s exactly the way we drew it up for Alex to hit that shot on the sideline but no way that was just a player with great heart making a great play.”
One of those classic used in interviews sports expressions is, “The road to success has to start somewhere.”
With the CEBL Championship Weekend set for The Arena at TD Place in August, the Ottawa Blackjacks have been running their new marketing campaign for the 2022 season that they call “The Road to the Chip.”
Clearly, the second-youngest (as Montreal, Newfoundland and Scarborough now tie for youngest) CEBL franchise has visions of hoisting the trophy on their home floor. What Wednesday night showed, though, is that with what looks like a genuine star player for this level at their disposal, the opportunity is there, but the road to August will be a lot longer than they may have envisioned.