Ottawa Gee-Gees Gunning for #1, Carleton Standing in Way

Johnny Berhanemeskel accepted the inbound pass with 6.8 seconds on the shot clock at the right wing. The Ottawa Gee-Gees men’s basketball team was trailing by two in the OUA Wilson Cup against their cross-town rival Carleton Ravens. Berhane dribbled left, as his teammate Terry Thomas set a ball screen on the three-point line. With the screen in front of him, Berhane had room to move, and dribbled to the centre baseline before being cut off by Ravens’ Clinton Springer-Williams. Time was ticking. There was time for one last shot. Berhane stepped back, jumped up and released the shot.

As the ball went up, Berhane down. The referee blew his whistle to indicate there was a foul on the floor. The ball was still up in the air with under a second remaining. Swish.

Just then, the entire Ottawa bench stormed the court, while the rest of the fans at the Mattamy Athletic Centre erupted in excitement. As play continued, Berhanemeskel sunk the and-one foul shot with 0.5 seconds left in regulation and gave Ottawa a 79-78 lead, the score that the Gee-Gees would win it by moments later.

For Carleton, it was a crushing defeat to an otherwise perfect 22-0 regular season and a unsuccessful bid for OUA supremacy the third time-in-a-row. For Ottawa, it was about supplanting themselves as one of the CIS’s best, dethroning the defending champions and winning the OUA Wilson Cup for the first time in 21 years.

But the dream of winning a CIS banner would have to wait.

After the No.1 Gee-Gees defeated Saskatchewan and Victoria in the first and second round of the CIS Final 8, they booked themselves a date with Carleton in the national championship game. But a stifling Ravens defense and lack of defensive rebounding cost the Gee-Gees the title, by the tune of a 79-67 score.

Courtesy: Ottawa Sun
Courtesy: Ottawa Sun

Ottawa Head coach James Derouin has coached in 103 regular season Gee-Gee games and 17 playoff games since taking over the helm in the summer of 2010. He says that winning the OUA Wilson Cup was an a tremendous win.

“It’s the biggest win definitely for me and one of the biggest for this program, especially because of the run that Carleton was on and is on over the last decade and a bit,” said Derouin, who has a record of 59-27 since joining the team in 2010.

“Knocking off Carleton at any time, in a game, in a big stage like that is always something pretty special. But it was the provincial championship and it was the national championship that we wanted. And it was a good win but we’re still definitely motivated going into the season for the big one.”

The Gee-Gees’ only other OUA Wilson Cup banner came in 1993 when they defeated the Western Mustangs 88-48 under head coach Jack Eisenmann.

Meanwhile, Ottawa’s only other national championship medal came in the form of a bronze in 2013 when they beat the Acadia Axemen 92-85, despite having been to the CIS Championships 9 times in program history. They actually finished a combination of third and fourth in 1993 and 2007 but did not actually medal because there were no bronze medal games played those seasons. Ottawa is still in search of their first national banner.

Carleton, on the other hand, is a different story altogether. In the last 13 years, the Ravens boast a regular season record of 252-10 (.961 winning percentage), 10 of those having produced national championships, including the last four-in-a-row. In that span, they have claimed the top hardware in the CIS — the Mike Moser Memorial Trophy (Most Outstanding Player) seven times, the Stuart W. Aberdeen Memorial Trophy (Coach of the Year) seven times, and the Jack Donohue Trophy (CIS Championships MVP) nine times.

Courtesy: Chronical Herald
Courtesy: Chronical Herald

But if there is one team that can give the Ravens a shot for their money, it’s Derouin’s Gee-Gees, a program on the rise over the past four years and one of only three teams to beat Carleton in the past four in any league play (the others being Lakehead in the 2010-2011 OUA final and by Windsor in the first game of the 2012- 2013 regular season).

Even the 12-point margin that Ottawa succumbed to in the CIS Finals was the lowest point differential Carleton has won by in the title game, in it’s current four-year CIS Championship winning run.

Ottawa put up the top offense last year in the OUA at 96.4 points per game but were in the middle of the pack on the rebounding side and defensive end where they were sixth and eighth, respectively. A prime example of this was in the CIS Finals, where the Gee-Gees were out-rebounded 46-31, and throughout the OUA and CIS playoffs, where they were out-rebounded in four of their six playoff games. But Berhane says that’s been an area of focus for his team during the off-season.

“Defence is something we’ve addressed —  defence and rebounding — and if we can do those things, that will increase the tempo of the game for us,” said the hometown Ottawa, Ont., native.

“We’ve done a good job of addressing it and looking it over and it’s time to just finally produce on the defensive end of the floor and we can’t let that be the one reason that slows us down this year. If we want to make sure that we keep progressing that’s something that we’re going have to make sure we adjust this year, and closing out possesions on rebounding.”

On the other end, the Ravens defence was ranked second among the 45 teams in the CIS at 62.2 points allowed and first in the OUA over the second-place team by more than five points. The Ravens had the highest free throw percentage in CIS, allowed the fewest rebounds per game and had best shooting percentage at 49.5 per cent.

But when the top offensive team and the top defensive team from the same city collide, something special happens. The intensity level rises. The rivalry between the Ravens and Gee-Gees really took wings in the final game of the 2012- 2013 season when Ottawa took Carleton to triple overtime, before losing 111-107.

The 107 points that Carleton allowed was the most points the Ravens have ever allowed in a single game, according to Shannon Chinn, manager of Interuniversity Sport at Carleton. Long-time Carleton Ravens announcer Vikta Paulo called it,“the game which showed the country that the Ottawa Geegees weren’t scared.”

“The intensity level rises on both teams when we face Carleton and if you come watch one of these games it ends up being a quote-on-quote war,” says Derouin.

“Sometimes they’re playing harder just for bragging rights in this city than for anything else. The whole city wants to know who’s going to win that game every year.The kids know each other extremely well and they feel comfortable and they go hard—both teams go extremely hard, the adrenaline’s high when we play each other and we have the luxury of playing one of the games at the Canadian Tire Centre in front of 9,000 people so all those things contribute to a great rivalry. There’s always a little extra something there when we play against Carleton and they feel the same way I would imagine.”

Fans are also well engaged in the Ottawa-Carleton rivalry as 10,523 people showed up to a head-to-head game played on Jan. 28, 2009 at the Capital Hoops Classic. It was the highest number of people to buy a ticket at a Gee-Gee-Ravens game ever, according to Chinn.

Ottawa PG Mike L'Africain is not settling for #2 | Courtesy: Toronto Sun
Ottawa PG Mike L’Africain is not settling for #2 | Courtesy: Toronto Sun

Mike L’africain was the top scoring bench player when Ottawa lost Carleton in that three overtime game. Now the starting point guard, L’africain is sick of hearing about Carleton’s storied run over the last decade-plus. He says he wants there to be another name in CIS basketball that is talked about.

“The thing that offends me is, ‘Carleton , Carleton, Carleton’,” said L’africain. “It offends our whole team, we’re trying to be better than Carleton. It’s not like they have way bigger guys or are faster or stronger. They’re just coached that way—to go very hard. And they win the little categories like rebounding and loose balls and stuff like that, and they are so tough that way. They get second and third opportunities against our defence. So if we can keep them off the glass, the gap would change.”

Long-time Ravens announcer and current Gee-Gees announcer, Vikta Paulo, has seen more than 10 Ottawa and Carleton head-to-head match ups over the last decade. He says that there is about a 55- 70 per cent chance that Ottawa and Carleton will once again clash at next year’s CIS Championship and said there’s really no other team in the mix to contend.

“If any team’s going to beat Carleton in CIS finals, it’s the Gee-Gees because they’re not scared,” said Paulo, who announced the Ravens from the 2006-2007 season to the 2013-2014 season and will be announcing Ottawa this year. “They know exactly what Carleton brings.  Ottawa is the team who, right out of the gate, will smack Carleton in the mouth, and they won’t be afraid to go on a 10-0 run. The Ottawa Gee-Gees are not scared to play the Carleton Ravens.”

To his point, the Ravens were +8.0 in the first quarter on average in 28 games last season (24.0 points scored versus 16.0 allowed) but against the Ottawa Geegees were just +3.0 in four games (21.8 points scored versus 18.8 allowed). Ottawa was also one of just four teams to outscore Carleton in the first quarter in those 28 games, and the only team in the OUA or CIS playoffs.

“It’s the Ottawa Gee-Gees championship to lose this year,” said Paulo. “Carleton wins championships. There’s no pressure put on them. Carleton goes there and they do their job. It’s up to the rest of the league to stop Carleton from doing their job.”

One of the big story-lines for Ottawa is how they will cope with the loss of small forward Terry Thomas after the fourth-year signed a professional contract in the German Pro A League.

Besides setting up the Wilson Cup winning ball screen for Berhane, Thomas lead the Gee-Gees in scoring all throughout the regular season and placed third in OUA with 22.5 points per game. He also set an all-time Ottawa University record for most points scored in a game with 44 on Feb. 8. of this year against York.

“Terry was big for us and he did a lot of intangibles that not a lot of players can do,” said Berhane. “You don’t make up for his loss with a player; no one is Terry Thomas. His ability to create offense out of his pressure on defense was special for us, and was a transition nightmare. It’s got to be a team contribution and guys understand that so everyone has to contribute on both ends of the floor.”

In four league games against Carleton last season Thomas averaged just 13.75 points (0.61 per cent of his regular season average) on 40 per cent shooting and it wasn’t just Thomas, but the entire team. Against any team not named Carleton, Ottawa was a perfect  26-0 in any league play last year. Against Carleton, they were 1-3 and scored just 69.0 points — 23 points less than their regular season average.

“That’s what makes Carleton so tough: you can’t give them an inch and we made some mistakes in the game,” said Derouin. “I’ve watched the CIS Final tape a thousand times and they played fantastic defence against our offence and held us twenty-something points below our average and that’s what makes Carleton great. They execute, they don’t make mistakes—or they make as few as possible — and they’re rebounding has always been something that has set them apart.”

Pivotal to the success of the Gee-Gees will be the fifth-year Berhane, who is coming off a career year, averaging 20.5 points per game on 53.1 per cent shooting  — third and sixth in the OUA  —  and being named a CIS Second Team All-Canadian and a CIS Final 8 Tournament All-Star.

In his career, Berhane’s 1559 total points scored in regular season play has him ranked second in Gee-Gees history and he is only 12 points off Josh Gibson-Bascombe’s record of 1571.

The Ravens, meanwhile, lost five players this off season, including forward Tyson Hinz and forward Kevin Churchill, who will join the Ravens on the bench as an assistant coach. Hinz won both OUA player of the Year and CIS Player of the Year in the 2010-2011 season and was a three-time CIS first team all-Canadian.

But one of the Ravens veterans, Thomas Scrubb, who will play his final year of CIS eligibility along with brother Philip Scrubb, still thinks Carleton is the team to beat.

“I still think going into this season we’re number one because we won last year and I’d say we’re still the most talented team,“ said Scrubb. “I feel that if we play our game, if we play with the most intensity, we attack the whole season and if we play the way we should, then we’re still the best team and there’s no team that’s better than us.”

Scrubb said that while Ottawa played them the toughest of any team last year, Carleton’s level of intensity doesn’t change depending on the opponent.

“I don’t think that just because its Ottawa, we change our mentality,” said Scrubb. “When we play each other, at the Canadian Tire Centre or just at home during a regular season game, the fans are a lot more into it so that brings out the intensity but we try to play our game. I guess they’re just better at matching our intensity than the other teams.”

But while half of the 18-man roster on Carleton has had a taste of the W. P. McGee Trophy, as Canada’s best team, only one player has drank from the trophy on the Geegees former Raven Mehdi Tihani, who was with Carleton during the 2010-2011 season, albeit as a redshit. Other than him. nobody else has tasted national victory on the Ottawa roster.

Berhane made it clear when he set his team’s expectations.

“We need to win a national championship this year,” said Berhane, who said he was feeling a combination of nerves and excitement going into his final home opener. L’africain went so far to even call it, “a win-or-bust” season, saying that a silver medal finishing at the CIS Finals wouldn’t be enough.

But Deroiuin wasn’t ready to make those commitments, yet. While he sees that the team is good enough on paper to contend for a national championship, he says his team is a while a way from getting there.

“Do I think we have a talented team? Yes. Do I think that we work hard enough and defend hard enough and rebound hard enough? No. So is it possible this year? Yes. But I would imagine there are 8 or 9 teams that feel the same way,” said Derouin.

Coach James Derouin looks to lead Ottawa to first ever CIS National title
Coach James Derouin looks to lead Ottawa to first ever CIS National title

“But after watching Carleton tear apart Memphis, we got a long way to go. So they’re still the favourite, they’re still the number one team, they’re still the returning champs. Someone once said it’s not a rivalry until both teams are beating each other back and forth, and I agree with that. This is still Carleton’s league and its still their division. They get to hold onto the banner until someone takes it away from them.”

Though they can see it, they can’t touch. Though they can smell it, they can’t taste it. Though they can sense it, they can’t feel it. If Ottawa, a team that has improved each of the last four seasons, wants to improve this year, there’s only one more improvement the program can make–a standard set by Derouin and co.

With a little bit of luck and all the right ingredients, the Ottawa Gee-Gees can turn their dream into reality.

“If we won the W. P. McGee trophy I would sleep with it,” said Berhanemeskel,” and then treat it to a good breakfast in bed.”


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