For some reason, the Lethbridge Pronghorns men’s basketball team seems to feel right at home at the Envision Athletic Centre.
The Pronghorns were the only team to beat the Cascades in Abbotsford during the regular season, winning 87-78 back on Jan. 7.
In an eerie coincidence, the final score was exactly the same on Thursday, as Lethbridge pushed the nation’s No. 4-ranked team to the brink of elimination in the best-of-three set.
“They (the Cascades) are a good team – they deserve where they’re at, No. 4 in the nation,” said Pronghorns power forward Dominyc Coward, who scored 14 points and hauled down six rebounds in the win. “I just think that we personally match up very well against them, and that’s why we can get them in their gym. And we’ve got them twice now.”
If the Pronghorns get them once more, and it’s season over for the UFV men.
The hosts actually got off to a solid start on Thursday. The Cascades knew exactly what they wanted to do defensively, and built an 18-9 lead after the first quarter and stretched it to 30-15 midway through the second.
But Lethbridge started to find some cracks in the Cascades’ defence, while UFV endured an offensive drought that saw them botch a series of layups and short jump shots. The Pronghorns ended the half on a 15-6 run, and trailed 36-30 at the break.
After halftime, Lethbridge clawed back to even terms and eventually surged ahead, while Cascades’ poor conversion rate on high-percentage shots morphed into a game-long malaise.
Sam Freeman became the unfortunate poster boy for UFV’s jitters around the hoop. Lethbridge led 75-68 in the latter half of the fourth quarter, but the Cascades made a mini-rally to cut the deficit to 75-73 with just over a minute remaining. Freeman came up with the steal and had nothing but daylight ahead of him, but his breakaway layup attempt hit the back iron and bounced out.
On the ensuing Lethbridge possession, Coward found himself all alone at the top of the key and swished a back-breaking three-pointer.
“It’s not one play that lost us the game,” Cascades guard Joel Friesen said, speaking up in defence of Freeman. “It was the overall effort from everyone. We’ve got to decide as a group if we’re going to make this happen, or if we’re just going to say we’re going to make it happen.”
Friesen, the Cascades’ leading scorer, endured a rough night in his own right. His 11 points came on anemic 2-of-11 shooting from the field, and 6-of-14 shooting from the foul line.
“I’m not sure what it was,” Friesen mused. “We missed a lot of bunnies today, a lot of easy shots that should have gone in. But that happens. It’s just weird how it’s happened against Lethbridge two times in a row. We’ve got to clean it up tomorrow at shootaround and be ready for the game.”
Backup point guard Sheldon Bjorgaard was a beacon of stability for the Cascades on Thursday – he was the best of the UFV bunch, scoring 15 points 5-of-8 shooting in 23 minutes of playing time. UFV power forward Kyle Grewal chipped in with a double-double (22 points and 10 rebounds), and centre Jasper Moedt hauled in 14 rebounds before fouling out early in the fourth quarter.
“We played strong defence initially, and I thought we came unglued a little bit,” Cascades coach Barnaby Craddock analyzed. “We had some lapses, and they were able to take advantage, especially in transition and on the offensive glass.
“We’ve dug ourselves into a hole, and there’s two things that can happen. Either we dig ourselves out, or it’s the end of the season. It’s put up or shut up time. It’s best two out of three, and we have a chance tomorrow to right the ship. I believe we can play better and I believe we can do that.”
For the Pronghorns, Daryl Cooper’s 25 points led four players in double figures – Morgan Duce (18), Coward (14) and Derek Waldner (13).
Coward said the turning point for Lethbridge was a timeout early in the second quarter, when head coach Dave Adams really lit into his players.
“He said, ‘This isn’t my team that I coach,’ and a lot of other choice words,” Coward said with a chuckle. “But it got us going.
“We just knew we had to go and do business.”
Game 2 of the best-of-three set tips off at 8 p.m. on Friday. Game 3, if necessary, would be at 7 p.m. Saturday.