Jefferson Hagen / MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – As if orchestrating a grand final bow, MacEwan head coach Eric Magdanz started all five of his graduating fifth-year players on Senior Night Saturday against the visiting UBC-Okanagan Heat.
Thomas Jereniuk, Denzel James, Tyler Wise, Keith Gerdes and Cole Aikens hit the ground running and the Griffins rode the emotional wave of their final act at City Centre Campus to a 93-64 victory that keeps their Canada West playoff hopes alive.
"That meant the world to me," said Aikens, who scored 10 points , four rebounds and three assists in 18 minutes of work after spending much of his final season on the bench.
When they were all subbed in together in the waning minutes for their swan song, the near-capacity crowd went wild. Magdanz raised an encore cheer when he subbed them all out at the same time with two minutes left.
"It was really special. You don't always get that opportunity because games still matter," he said. "Thankfully for us, our guys did a great job early in the game and we could honour our fifth-year players for all the hard work and all the dedication that they gave to this program."
The Griffins seniors fed off each other and their teammates as they rained down big play after big play on the Heat, who were already playing short-handed without regular starters Austin Penrose and Noma Obaseki, who left the game after just three minutes.
MacEwan led 22-10 after the first quarter and extended that to 35-19 at one point in the second. The Heat charged back on an 8-0 run and got within 42-36 at the half.
But eventually the Griffins' stars overwhelmed the visitors. Thadius Galvez got the hoop and the harm at 6:40 of the third quarter to put MacEwan up 49-38 before James scored three-straight buckets and the rout was in full swing.
By the end of the game, it was like an after-party for the Griffins' seniors who were trying dunks and alley-oops.
"Hat's off to those guys," said Heat head coach Pete Guarasci in a classy statement about the Griffins' seniors, some of them who he recruited out of high school when he was head coach at MacEwan. "I think they're a really nice group of kids. We've competed against them for most of their careers and they've always been very sportsmanlike. I'd like to congratulate all five of those guys.
"We had two starters down," he noted of his own squad. "Tonight we ended up rolling with a lot of first-year guys and trying to get them some experience. Obviously, the outcome isn't what we want, but we're just getting those guys some minutes."
Third-year leading scorer Aldrich Berrios led the Heat with 21 points, while freshman Triston Matthews had 19 points, eight rebounds, three assists and four steals. Fourth-year forward Cameron Friesen chipped in 13 points.
In contrast to a night earlier, when the Griffins didn't close out a win over the Heat until the final minutes, they played a complete game on Saturday.
"This is what we want MacEwan basketball to be – a team that plays tough defence, a team that is offensively-skilled and has the ability to score the ball," said Magdanz. "More than any of those, (we want to be known as) a team that competes. And that's the one thing we did tonight is we competed every single possession and we did it as a team."
Galvez led MacEwan with 25 points and eight rebounds in 27 minutes, while James had 22 points and three blocks in 23. Gerdes also had a big final home game with 18 points in 26 minutes.
As for the other graduating players: Wise had five points and five boards in 19 minutes, and Jereniuk played a team-high 29 minutes, leading the Griffins with four assists to go along with two points.
"It was a big game, obviously, because it was our last game as seniors, but it was equally as special because it was a big game with playoff implications," said Aikens. "It was a big win for a lot of different reasons, so it's special personally and as a team."
And he'll never forget the way Magdanz orchestrated the night, including a fantastic final act.
"It was great. The other four seniors, we've been playing against each other since high school," he said. "Guys like Tyler, I've been playing against him since eighth grade.
"It's a really cool opportunity that there's four other seniors and after playing together for so long we got to go out playing together in our final minutes. It was very cool."
When they wake up and look at the standings it will likely make them feel better, too. With the sweep over the Heat, the Griffins are now 7-11, which puts them in a three-way tie for the final playoff spot with Regina and Victoria, both teams they split with this season.
MacEwan will conclude the regular season with a tough test, though – a two-game trip to reigning national runner-up Calgary (14-4) on Feb. 10-11. Regina will host Thompson Rivers (8-10). And Victoria hosts Winnipeg (12-6).
The Heat, now sitting alone in the Canada West cellar at 2-16, will finish the regular season by hosting Fraser Valley (9-9).