Brian Swane, Special to Canada West
EDMONTON - You gotta have at least one. Basketball in March just isn't complete without.
And based on their stirring Canada West playoff run to win silver and secure a trip to nationals for the first time in more than three decades, the Manitoba Bisons seem the perfect fit to be cast as Cinderella.
"We've kind of come out of nowhere, especially in Canada West," says Bisons coach Kirby Schepp. "Because of our best-of-three (playoff series), you don't get too many lower seeds like us making it this far, so I guess the fact that we haven't been ranked (in the U SPORTS Top 10) all season long puts that kind of tag on us.
"But call us whatever you want to call us, just make sure we've still got a ticket to the dance."
Manitoba is off to Halifax for the U SPORTS Final 8 men's basketball championship, taking place Thursday through Sunday at the Scotiabank Centre, where they will be joined by Canada West champs Alberta and bronze-medal winning Calgary.
No one could imagine the Bisons making it this far when they opened their Canada West schedule with a 2-6 record. After winning 10 of their last 12 to reach the playoffs, Manitoba swept Regina in a best-of-three play-in series. The Bisons then went to Vancouver for a quarter-final series with UBC - at that point ranked second in the U SPORTS Top 10 - and proceeded to win consecutive games against a T-Birds team that had lost just once in 20 regular season games.
Last week at Final Four in Calgary, the Bisons upset the host Dinos with a dramatic two-point semifinal triumph to punch their ticket to Halifax.
It was a watershed victory for the Bisons, coming against a Calgary team that was No. 5 in the national rankings, the top-seeded team in the Canada West playoffs, and had beaten Manitoba each of the previous two post-seasons, both times at Jack Simpson Gym.
"We've got a lot of seniors, a lot of veteran guys, a lot of guys that have been around and been through some battles ... and we were just basically able to better handle the moment because of the experiences we had," says Schepp.
This is the first time Manitoba has reached nationals since 1986. Until last year, the Bisons had never won a Canada West playoff series. Now they've captured the imagination of not only a university, but the entire basketball community in Winnipeg.
"There's kind of a buzz about us, people are talking and anytime people are talking about your program that's a great thing," says Schepp, who is in his eight season at the Bisons' helm. "Certainly our alumni base is excited and we're excited. It's a huge step for us in terms of getting to that next level and we certainly want to take advantage of it."
Just three wins separate the Bisons from a Hollywood ending to their fairytale journey, starting against McGill in the quarter-finals Thursday. As the sixth seed, Manitoba finds itself in the familiar role of underdog.
"Let's face it, the rest of the way we'll have our backs up against the wall," says Schepp.
"And that's a good thing."
Canada West teams at the U SPORTS Final 8:
No.4 ALBERTA GOLDEN BEARS
QF vs No. 5 Dalhousie at 8pm AST (5pm MT) Thurs., March 9
Regular season: 14-6, 3rd (tie)
Playoffs: defeated Lethbridge 2-1 in quarter-final series, defeated Saskatchewan 83-70 in semi final game, defeated Manitoba 92-73 in gold medal game
Season leaders: Mamadou Gueye (15.9 ppg), Brody Clarke (7.1 rpg), Austin Waddoups (3.7 apg)
Canada West awards: Clarke (First Team All-Star), Waddoups (Second Team All-Star), Andre Kelly (All-Rookie Team)
National championships: 3 (1994, 1995, 2002)
No. 6 MANITOBA BISONS
QF vs No. 3 McGill at 2pm AST (noon CST) Thurs., March 9
Regular season: 12-8, 6th (tie) – 6th seed
Playoffs: defeated Regina 2-0 in play-in series, defeated UBC 2-0 in quarter-final series, defeated Calgary 74-72 in semi final game, lost to Alberta 92-73 in gold medal game
Season leaders: Justus Alleyn (17.4 ppg), Keith Omoerah (8.7 rpg), Ilarion Bonhomme (4.8 apg)
Canada West awards: Alleyn (Second Team All Star), James Wagner (All-Rookie Team)
National championships: 1 (1976)
No. 7 CALGARY DINOS
QF vs No. 2 Carleton at noon AST (9 a.m. MT) Thurs., March 9
Regular season: 16-4, 2nd
Playoffs: defeated Thompson Rivers 2-0 in quarter-final series, lost to Manitoba 74-72 in semi final game, defeated Saskatchewan 111-106 (OT) in bronze medal game
Season leaders: Thomas Cooper (22.7 ppg), Cooper (7.5 rpg), David Kapinga (4.1 apg)
Canada West awards: Cooper (First Team All-Star)
National championships: none
Complete U SPORTS Final 8 schedule:
|Thu. 9||Carleton||Calgary||12:00 PM AST||Live stats|
|Game A - Quarterfinal|
|McGill||Manitoba||2:00 PM AST||Live stats|
|Game B - Quarterfinal|
|Ryerson||Saint Mary's||6:00 PM AST||Live stats|
|Game C - Quarterfinal|
|Alberta||Dalhousie||8:00 PM AST||Live stats|
|Game D - Quarterfinal|
|Fri. 10||TBA||TBD||6:00 PM AST||Live stats|
|Consolation Semi-Final A|
|TBA||TBD||8:00 PM AST||Live stats|
|Consolation Semi-Final B|
|Sat. 11||TBA||TBD||1:00 PM AST||Live stats|
|Semifinal 1 - Broadcast on Sportsnet 360
|TBA||TBD||3:30 PM AST||Live stats|
|Semifinal 2 - Broadcast on Sportsnet 360
|TBA||TBD||8:00 PM AST||Live stats|
|Sun. 12||TBA||TBD||11:30 AM ADT||Live stats|
|Bronze Medal Game|
|TBA||TBD||2:00 PM ADT||Live stats|
|Gold Medal Game - Broadcast on Sportsnet 360|