Halifax, NS- When that championship moment finally came, so did the emotions. The Carleton Ravens men’s basketball team had just defeated the St. Fx X-Men 109-104 in double overtime in the title game of the U SPORTS men’s basketball Final 8. They had just won their four straight national title.
Point guard Aiden Warnholtz – named tournament MVP – said he felt a ton of joy and a little bit of relief. “Thank God it’s not triple overtime,” his long-time teammate Connor Vreeken thought. He said he was pretty happy in the moment though.
The moments leading up to that one almost seemed too many to count. Flash back to when Carleton fell behind by 23 points with the deafening pro-St.Fx crowd cheering against them. When the X-Men were seemingly scoring at will in transition, in the paint and the three-point line as well.
Flash back to when veterans Warnholtz and Vreeken talked to their teammates at halftime with Carleton staring at still a 13-point deficit.
“Guys, we’ve been here before. They haven’t,” Vreeken recalls telling them. “We’ve got to trust our fundamentals. Get them weak, make them pass the ball and we’re going to take it one possession at a time to win this game.”
Flash back to that crucial possession with Carleton trailing by three and Warnholtz pumped faked and heaved up a long three. Swish. Tie game. He said he tried to up fake to draw a foul.
“It was a bit of a lucky one,” he noted. “I’m not going to lie. I’m glad it went in.”
When overtime went around, Warnholtz, Vreeken and the other Ravens continued to make key plays. With his team trailing by one, Warnholtz stole the ball, darted the other way and found Vreeken for three.
While Carleton made shots, so did St. Fx. The X-Men went inside to AUS All-Star David Muenkat numerous times as he hit got to the line and hit free throw after free throw.
With the first overtime winding down, it was their own point guard, Avan Nava, who nailed a clutch three of his own to tie it at 94 – bringing the loud Scotiabank Arena crowd to thunderous applause and bringing the game to another overtime.
With the second overtime winding down, Warnholtz continued to score. With his team trailing, he hit a three and then a jumper. Then he found Vreeken from deep before hitting another jumper. Then their opponents started fouling them – running out of time – and they drained the ensuing free throws.
The previous day, Carleton head coach Taffe Charles talked about the difference experience would make. His veteran players had been in these nationals moments before. The X-Men hadn’t. The next day, it showed.
Charles noticed how when the game got close, St. Fx got a little tight. Meanwhile, the Ravens focused on continuing to grind, having been through those grinding situations before. “Had enough experience to get through it this year,” he noted. “Just enough experience.”
That experience also meant belief. Charles remembered when he won a national championship for the first time, he said it changed his life. “It makes you believe you can do anything,” he added.
That belief was felt when they were trailing against the X-Men. It came from previous experience. The last time they were facing an AUS team in the finals in 2020, they came back from being down 12 points against the Dalhousie Tigers at halftime.
“We believe that we can win that game” Charles said of tonight. “Just because we had won before and we know what it’s like.”
That belief and experience meant they were national champions once more. They celebrated on the court and mobbed each other. Soon, the emotions and reflection came as well. Warnholtz, Vreeken and Elliot Bailey have both been part of the past four national titles. Warnholtz said that everyone feels different and amazing.
“This one is probably a little extra special because of, you know, the time I’ve been at Carleton,” Warnholtz added.
He, Vreeken and Bailey have seen their roles grows as the seasons have gone along. From bench players to role players to being seniors “leaving it all out on the floor,” according to Vreeken. Their impact is perhaps none more evident than against St. Fx.
Warnholtz finished with 23 points, 11 assists and two steals. Bailey had 21 points (including five three-pointers) and 9 rebounds. Vreeken had 23 points, eight rebounds and four assists.
Vreeken was coming off a career-best 27-point outing against Ottawa in the semi-finals. As his role continued to expand since 2018, Vreeken’s seen his senior teammates in the past end their careers with national titles. Last year in Edmonton, he pointed out how he was trying to win for their seniors – Alain Louis, Biniam Ghebrekidan and Lloyd Pandi.
This year in Halifax, they were the seniors. This could be their send off as well. Warnholtz and Vreeken said they’re undecided if they’re coming back next year.
“This one – you know Aiden, me, Elliot – we’ve all been here the last five years,” Vreeken noted. “This one’s ours.”
Featured Image: Trevor MacMillan/Dalhousie Athletics/U SPORTS