It was an emotional rollercoaster for MacEwan University’s Griffins men’s basketball team over the weekend. Despite leading late in the third quarter in all three games, the Griffins could only pull one win, losing their first CIS playoff matchup against the University of Alberta’s Golden Bears.
Anyone with an inkling of knowledge regarding CIS basketball knew the teams were more evenly matched than their reputations would suggest; both teams had identical records, with the Griffins having a better point differential than the Bears.
The only advantages the U of A had over MacEwan were size and quality of competition within their respective divisions.
As such, the Griffins entered the weekend knowing they had a realistic chance of winning this series, while many fans would watch in awe as the David-versus-Goliath match unfolded.
Except it wasn’t quite that simple. Neither team had the luxury of playing one another, so the team watched game tapes from other matchups with no idea how they would fare against the team.
There were a lot of firsts this weekend. No school had ever made the playoffs in their second year of entering the CIS. The Griffins had no CIS experience, except what Head Coach Eric Magdanz could offer from his playing days.
Friday night was MacEwan’s CIS playoff debut, hosting the Golden Bears in their own city. More than 1,200 people came, and there was good representation for the Griffins in the crowd.
The team responded, leading by as many as 11 points in the third quarter. The Griffins, generally undersized (especially at the centre position), went in with the game plan of quick passing, followed by cuts and kick-outs, looking for the open shots. The lead came as a result of hitting shots, but the team struggled to maintain consistency throughout.
They only shot 29 per cent from the floor, including 21 per cent from beyond the arc.
MacEwan ended up losing the first game 67-58, thanks to a combination of cold shooting and foul trouble in the fourth.
MacEwan was still feeling confident for the next game, though.
“I think we do a good job of bouncing back, whatever the result is,” said Magdanz of his team, whose up-and-down season has been highlighted with tough losses, followed by easy wins, followed by heartbreakers.Competing is difficult when your back is against the wall, but heading into Saturday, this was the hand MacEwan had been dealt.
Griffins guard Thadius Galvez hit a three-pointer with 4:16 left in the first quarter on Saturday, and the lead didn’t change hands again.
Denzel James posted an impressive statfor the Griffins, notching 24 points and eight rebounds, shooting 67 per cent from beyond the arc.
MacEwan’s shooting improved tenfold, finishing at 42 per cent from the floor and 41 per cent from three. Magdanz’s strategy of continuing to shoot from outside worked to a tee, especially when his players were hitting their shots.
Taking their second game, MacEwan had earned the push to game three. Playoff hopes were on the line for both teams, with only each other in the way.
The stage was set for the upset. Unfortunately, it didn’t end well for the Griffins.
MacEwan battled their rivals from across the river, getting off to a hot start in the first, and leading by as many as eight points.
As if the teams were trying to make it interesting, the lead changed 13 times throughout the game. It felt like MacEwan had a chance to make history. Galvez saw an opening to take it to the hoop and put his team up eight with 4:17 left in the game.
Again, though, a combination of missed shots and foul trouble allowed the Bears to claw their way back into it.
It’s 53-52 for the Golden Bears, with 16 seconds left. Forward/centre Ryan May pulls down a defensive board. He’s fouled.
The team gives James the chance to take the lead on two free throws. He hits one. He hits the other. MacEwan is up by one point with 16 seconds left.
After the timeout, the Bears put the ball on the floor with it all on the line. They take the shot and miss, but they gather the offensive rebound. Dwan Williams of the Bears puts the shot back and gets fouled. Bears by one with less than a second left.
Williams also has a free throw, which, if he misses, the time runs out and that is the end of the game. But the rule says the free throw must hit the rim.
Williams’s miss does not hit the rim, making it a dead ball. This means the Griffins have a chance for the winning shot.
Coach Magdanz calls a timeout, giving his team centre court to dish the ball and shoot it in time. However, in a potential foul call that could have gone either way, the Griffins mishandle the inbound pass, giving the Bears possession and, with that, the game.
Tough loss, easy win, heartbreaker.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our team,” said Magdanz. “We were considered the underdogs throughout this. We battled like champions.”
The stat sheets certainly showed MacEwan’s incredible defensive effort to shut down a team that was not only more experienced, but that also had a considerable size advantage. The loss was an emotional one, but the ups and downs of the season were likely instrumental in making the team what it is: a tight-knit family.
“You can only save your family if you have each other’s backs, and these guys have it,” said Magdanz.
It’s tough to already look ahead to next season, when most of the current team will remain, except for Ryan May and David Grange, but Magdanz is confident that this past weekend was an eye-opener for the inexperienced team.
“The playoff experience will do us wonders, and I know this will be a chip on their shoulders and they’ll be ready to play,” said Magdanz.
Despite the loss to the University of Alberta, this weekend merely scratches the surface of what promises to be an epic rivalry and, more importantly, a new legacy of MacEwan Griffins university basketball.
Photo by Kyle Muzyka.