By Charlie Pinkerton
If you were to pick a time for Carleton’s grip on Canadian men’s university basketball supremacy to loosen out of the last two decades, this season would have been your best bet. But when the Ravens were pushed to their brink fighting for the national championship, the team showed why their hold is still talon-strong.
Simultaneously as the score clock turned to zeros to end the 2nd quarter of the U Sports title game, a prayer from deep launched by Dalhousie big-man Sascha Kappos swished through the net at Lansdowne’s TD Place arena. The deep 3-point make gave the Tigers a commanding 12-point lead over the defending champion Ravens, whose chances at reclaiming their title seemed to sink alongside the ball in the hoop.
Carleton head coach Taffe Charles was seen on the game’s broadcast staring blankly at the court where Dalhousie players celebrated their promising shot at doing what only three non-Ravens teams had done in the previous 17 years. The man responsible for much of Carleton’s dominance over that span, former coach and current director of basketball operations at Carleton Dave Smart, was seated at the end of the Ravens’ bench shaking his head.
Carleton had never lost a national championship game under Smart, winning 13 Canadian university titles in 16 years (the school added another with his nephew Rob Smart as the team’s coach, while Dave was on a sabbatical leave). Though the legendary former coach remained closely connected to the Ravens men’s team throughout the year, Smart stepping down and Charles’ appointment marked a rare turn into uncertainty for the Ravens, coming after close-to 20 seasons of dominance.
This season’s championship appearance was by no means Charles’ first trip to the big-time. He won five national titles as an assistant to Smart before going on to help Carleton win its first U Sports championship in the women’s division. With his team down by double-digits at halftime, Charles left things to his veterans, allowing them to bestow a message to the rest of the team’s players before he spoke himself, Charles recounted in an interview with the Sportspage.
In those moments, Ravens rookie and team MVP Lloyd Pandi said the “leaders are the ones that really helped us.”
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The rally came courtesy of fifth-year players including Marcus Anderson, of Brampton, Munis Tutu, of Windsor, and Ottawa’s Yasiin Joseph, Pandi said.
“The seniors were picking us up, saying, ‘This is not over, we’re going to win this game,’” Pandi said.
Second-year guard Aiden Warnholtz remembers it in a similar way.
“Some of the guys in the locker room stepped up and said like, ‘If we’re going down, we’re going down swinging,’ – that sort of thing,” Warnholtz said.
It didn’t come to that point for Carleton, who came out of the 2nd half with a switched-up game plan that included increasing pressure on Tiger ball handlers and moving away from their reliance on three pointers, with which they’ve been so lethal during their fifth-of-a-century of success.
The Ravens limited Dalhousie to 29 2nd-half points and finished the game on a 16-1 run. Both Warnholtz, who cut the margin to 3 points with just under 4 minutes left with a 3-pointer of his own, and Pandi said they felt the game was Carleton’s to lose when Tutu broke a tie with a long-range dagger with under two minutes to go.
“(I felt) like there was just no way we were going to lose this now,” Warnholtz said.
TUTU FOR THE LEAD!! 🏀🔥 pic.twitter.com/tntPbxi5Pl
— Carleton Ravens Basketball (@CURavensBBall) March 9, 2020
The Ravens held on, winning the 2020 U Sports men’s basketball championship by a score of 74-65. The title is Carleton’s record 15th in 18 seasons.
With graduating players like Tutu and others who spoke up to reassure the younger Ravens at halftime gone next season, guys like Pandi – who led Carleton in scoring this season – and Warnholtz can expect even bigger roles moving forward.
One direction Charles indicated the team may lean towards as the years go on under his leadership is to expand what he described as its “base of local guys.”
During his 12-year tenure as Carleton’s women’s head coach, Charles frequently relied on local players centrally. On his championship-winning 2018 team, Ottawa natives Heather Lindsay and Catherine Traer were two of the team’s most important players, while fellow Ottawan Steph Carr was also integral to the Ravens’ lineup.
Looking ahead, Charles pointed to 2nd-year players Connor Vreeken and Biniam Ghebrekidan – who played club basketball with Carleton pipeline teams Ottawa Elite and Ottawa Guardsmen before joining the Ravens – as expected Ottawa-brewed difference-makers. He counted Pandi and Warnholtz in the same lot, too.
“It’s quite the value to have local guys. In terms of the stress, in terms of money-wise, in terms of being here all year-round, in terms of it being their hometown, even after, having a network with alumni and that sort of stuff… We want to make sure we’ve got a great base of young local guys,” Charles said.
Part of the Ravens’ sustained success has been keeping an ever-revolving cycle of top talent coming through the university year-after-year.
“(The local guys we recruit) have got to be talented as well, that’s the reality of the situation, but we do have a good group (at the moment),” Charles said.
Pandi and Warnholtz, meanwhile, were both recruited to Carleton two years ago and joined the Ravens only months before Smart told the team he would be stepping down as its coach.
Neither had expected that their time being coached by the most accomplished benchminder in U Sports history would be cut short when they signed on with the Ravens, but said after one year with Smart in a background role that the Carleton way they signed up for has remained largely unaltered.
“(Carleton) had built a culture with these other guys and assistant coaches and Dave’s still around, so it was definitely a change, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Warnholtz said.
“Nothing really changed to be honest because our culture is still the same, we still have the same people supporting the program, we still have the same people overlooking the program – such as Dave and his companions,” Pandi said.
A glimpse of the oft-referenced Carleton culture comes through when members of the program are asked about the entire point of it all, and if another championship, or another after that, is enough.
Whether it’s Smart, Charles, Warnholtz or Pandi, they each preferred not to wander into hypotheticals, instead keeping things simple and talking about what’s attainable.
“We just talk about getting better each and every day. That’s honestly what we’re trying to do. So with that on mind, (the players) aren’t really going to worry about what the limits are or the goals are – the goal is basically to win every game and to win every year,” Charles said with a laugh.
It’s tough to argue with the coach. After all, he is one-for-one so far.
Nationals cancelled before Gee-Gees men’s hockey team could hit the ice
The Gee-Gees men’s hockey team was in Halifax getting ready for their quarter-final match at the Canadian university championships the following evening against Acadia when they received word that the tournament wouldn’t move forward due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
uOttawa went 17-9-4 in the regular season to place 6th overall in the 20-team OUA that was topped by 24-3-1 Carleton. In the playoffs, the Gee-Gees downed Ontario Tech, Trois-Rivières and Concordia (who’d upset Carleton) to qualify for nationals, and took Ontario silver with a 2-1 triple-overtime defeat to Guelph in the provincial championship final.
“An unfortunate way to end our journey. We understand the decision and accept it. But we are sad that this is the end,” Gee-Gees coach Patrick Grandmaître wrote on Twitter after the nationals were shelved, making special mention of the 17 senior players who will move from the program.
“What a group,” he added. “They would have put a show on that ice. Love you boys.”