Jefferson Hagen / MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON — Backed by their largest, most vocal crowd of the season, the Griffins fought off an 18-point deficit to pull within two points of visiting Winnipeg late in the fourth quarter on Friday night.
With an electric atmosphere on White Out night, Keith Gerdes and Thadius Galvez traded three-pointers down the stretch in what looked like a miraculous rally in the making.
If not for giving up two offensive rebounds in the final minute it might have been.
Instead, Winnipeg escaped with an 89-85 victory to improve to 10-5 on the Canada West men's basketball season.
"I think we were really fortunate to be in a position where we had the lead at that point," said Winnipeg head coach Mike Raimbault. "Obviously it was exciting for everyone here. They did a tremendous job of executing and keeping the pressure on us possession by possession and we had to make some free throws and a couple tough buckets just to hang on.
"We're fortunate to escape."
The difference was so minute that it might give MacEwan's players nightmares. Within the final minute, Winnipeg's Denzel Lynch-Blair was given an extra two trips to the free-throw line – one off a jump ball that gave possession back to the Wesmen and another when he was fouled while grabbing the rebound off his own missed free throw.
"That's a tough way (to lose) when it comes down to a simple play like that," said Griffins head coach Eric Magdanz. "You battle back so hard and then it comes down to a simple play. But that's basketball.
"You've got to do the little things in order for the big things to happen. For us, we just didn't quite do enough little things tonight."
There's no denying they did the big things. Gerdes was absolutely on fire in the fourth quarter, finishing with a 6-for-14 mark from the three-point line for a game-high 22 points. There was no better shot from the fifth-year senior than when he caught nothing but net from downtown with a defender in his face with 1:58 left.
And Galvez, who stutter-stepped his defender to hit a three with 5.8 seconds left that again pulled MacEwan within two, finished with 21 points, including 4-for-8 from behind the arc. He didn't miss the triple-double by much, adding nine assists and seven rebounds.
"Two weekends ago in Brandon we had a pretty good shooting affair as well and it carried over to tonight," said Magdanz, whose squad is coming off a bye after a big 98-86 win against the Bobcats in their previous action on Jan. 14.
"What it came down to was us executing – get ourselves in position to get open, balanced shots. We're good shooters when we get those shots."
Winnipeg won the game inside, though, as 6-foot-10 forward Ryan Oirbans proved the king of the put-backs and of the dunk show in amassing a double-double 13-point, 13-rebound performance. The Wesmen built their lead with an impressive 17-2 run to close out the first quarter and a 16-6 run to finish up the third.
"First and foremost, I think they're an excellent three-point shooting team," said Raimbault of the Griffins, who bucketed 36 of their points on Friday from behind the arc. "They're tough to defend, they've got a lot of guys that can create opportunities for their shooters. They did a good job of stepping in and knocking it down.
"For us, we play a little bit of a different style," he continued. "We had some opportunities to make some perimeter jump shots that were big for us when we built our lead, but for the most part we want to play inside out."
Lynch-Blair led the Wesmen with 18 points, while Sean Tarver had 17 and three others – Marcello Kambola (11), Narcisse Ambanza (10) and William Sesay (10) – were all in double figures.
Unfortunately, for the Griffins, who fall to 4-11 after the defeat, it's the eighth time this season they've lost a game in the final minute. That means they could just as easily be in a playoff spot as much as sitting just shy of one like they are now.
"I think it just comes down to the competitiveness of our league," said Magdanz of the close losses. "You look at the standings, everyone's right there. Every single weekend, scores are tight.
"It just means you have to come and play every single night and games break themselves down into one or two small plays, either in your favour or against you."
The Griffins will have a chance at the split with Winnipeg when they host the Wesmen again on Saturday night (7 p.m., City Centre Campus). They will hope to build off the late-game momentum where it seems like they couldn't miss.
"It shows us we can be successful," said Magdanz. "It shows us we need to improve our defence. We'll work on that and put in some different strategy for tomorrow and hope the hot shooting continues."