Halifax, NS- Carleton Ravens guard Connor Vreeken drove into the lane. His team was nursing a late lead that had shrunk smaller and smaller. It was 14 points at one time in the fourth quarter and now it was down to 75-70 after two Kevin Otoo free throws. It was the men’s basketball Final 8 semi-finals.
Then Vreeken drove into the lane and hit a jumper. After Ottawa’s Guillaume Pepin sank a three to cut into Carleton’s lead, Vreeken drove into the teeth of the defence again and scored a layup. 79-73 with 32 seconds left.
For good measure, the Kingston native grabbed a defensive rebound and sunk two free throws soon afterwards to clinch the victory. The Ravens once again were moving onto the championship game with an 81-75 victory over their cross-town rivals on Mar. 11.
Vreeken recalls Carleton head coach Taffe Charles telling him how he needs to play better than he did in their quarterfinal. He did just that, scoring 27 points and grabbing 9 rebounds. He shot 10-for-16 from the field, including two-for-three from deep. He set career-highs in points scored and field goals made.
“I just try to do what he’s told me to do all year,” Vreeken said of his head coach. Meanwhile, Charles said he’s extremely happy with Vreeken’s performance.
“He has the ability. He’s shown the ability many times,” Charles noted. “I’m proud of him, happy for him in terms of the way he stepped up.”
Late in the game, Charles was telling him to pass the ball to point guard Aiden Warnholtz . Instead, Vreeken waved Warnholtz off, telling him: “Hey I want to take this and make a play,” Charles recalled.
“That was a very big moment to be honest with you,” he added. “And really set the tone after that happened.”
It was a sign of his confidence, according to the head coach. The two of them have had the conversation before – at the beginning of the season. Charles told him he needed him to contribute more.
By contributing more, it means more than just scoring, Vreeken pointed out. Rebounding more for example. His average rebounds have gone from 3.6 last regular season to 5.3 in this one. His minutes have gone up (22.0 to 29.6) and so has his free-throw percentage (83.3 to 91.3). His points average has risen from 8.2 to 13.1.
“The scoring is just come from my teammates having trust in me and getting me the ball in good spots,” Vreeken noted.
He’s been known as a great three-point shooter – averaging at least 44.2 per cent from three in each season since 2019. Against Ottawa, he showed his ability to drive as well.
“Aiden and Connor – especially Vreeken – were able to get [into the] paint, seem to be able to just get to the rim or to that mid-rim area at will tonight,” Ottawa head coach James Derouin said. “Then they finished when they got there.”
What’s worth noting is Vreeken scored only six of his 27 points from deep. This regular season, he’s scored 114 of his 223 points from beyond the arc (51.1 per cent). Against Ottawa, Vreeken hit five-of-six free throws.
Coincidentally, his teammates started opening up from deep. The Ravens shot 52.9 per cent from three compared to Ottawa’s 25 per cent. First-year guard Marjok Okada nailed three-of-four triples.
Another thing Vreeken brings with him – in this game and the finals against St. Fx – is experience. He’s been at Carleton since 2018, having won a national title each season he’s been there.
He was there when the Ravens edged out the Alberta Golden Bears on enemy territory 64-63 in last year’s semis. He had 10 points, two rebounds and a block that day.
He was there on this day when he led his team in scoring and rebounding. Vreeken, Warnholtz, Grant Shephard and others can draw upon that experience in this year’s final.
That experience helps them, including confidence-wise, Charles pointed out. He knows that they’ve been there before, know what to do and have handled adversity before as well. It makes them a bit stronger, he added.
“We have a lot of experience in terms of not letting the moment get too big for us,” Charles said. “I think that’s the one thing that I think a lot people who play us are scared of, is just having that extra experience.”
Experiences like Saturday on career-high night for Vreeken in another national semi-finals win.
Featured Image: Trevor MacMillan/U SPORTS/Dalhousie Athletics