To be sure, earning the right to host a first-round Canada West playoff series is heady stuff for the University of the Fraser Valley basketball teams.
But don’t try telling either of the Cascades’ hoops squads – men or women – that they’re favoured heading into their respective best-of-three sets, which tip off on Thursday at the Envision Athletic Centre. They’ll swat away that notion like a weak finger-roll in the lane.
“We’ll relish the role of underdog,” said UFV men’s head coach Barnaby Craddock, looking ahead to his team’s clash with the Lethbridge Pronghorns.
Cue the sound of a needle scratching across a spinning record.
The underdog label seems like a square-peg, round-hole scenario for Craddock’s Cascades – they’re ranked No. 4 in the nation, and are viewed as a legit threat to advance to the CIS national championships. They finished the Canada West regular season with a 13-5 record to earn the Pacific Division’s No. 2 seed, while Lethbridge, the No. 3 seed from the Prairie Division, barely finished above .500 at 11-9. The UFV men, furthermore, fashioned a sparkling 8-1 record at home.
But as it happens, that lone homecourt defeat came at the hands of the Pronghorns – they won 87-78 back on Jan. 7. That game ended with Craddock spiking his suit jacket on the hardwood – part of a late-game tirade at the referees that saw the UFV bench boss ejected.
His displeasure with the officiating that night aside, Craddock emphasizes his team was out-played by the Pronghorns. And if there were any danger about the lofty national ranking inflating the Cascades’ collective ego, facing Lethbridge in the first round ensures they’ll be a hungry, focused group.
“They really took it to us, so I guess in a way, against this team specifically, we are underdogs,” UFV power forward Kyle Grewal said, echoing his coach. “They’re the only team that beat us in our gym this season, and we’ve got to show everyone that we can play better.”
Point guard Daryl Cooper is Lethbridge’s leading scorer at 16.2 points per game, but it’s the Pronghorns’ depth in the post that makes them a tough foe. They boast a stout starting frontcourt in 6’6″ power forward Dominyc Coward (15.0 points per game, 9.8 rebounds) and 6’7″ centre Derek Waldner (9.6 points, 7.7 rebounds), and they have the luxury of bringing in 6’10” Nikola Kovac off the bench.
The Cascades have their own terrific post trio in Grewal (6’6″), Jasper Moedt (6’7″) and Mike James (6’6″, pictured above). Those players helped UFV win the rebounding battle most nights – they were third in Canada West with a +6.4 rebounding margin. But Lethbridge was right behind them in fourth, at +6.0.
“Perhaps there are some teams where we have a size advantage, but Lethbridge isn’t one of them,” noted Craddock. “It’s been a long season, a lot of work to get to this point, and we’re antsy to get the playoffs started.”
CASCADES’ DEFENCE TAKES ON DINOS’ OFFENCE
As for the Cascades women (12-6), they’re the nation’s No. 9-ranked team, and also finished second in the Pacific Division. They host the Calgary Dinos (14-6), who are ranked No. 10 nationally.
UFV beat the Dinos 88-71 on Jan. 6, but like Craddock, Cascades women’s bench boss Al Tuchscherer is loathe to embrace the role of favourite.
“We can’t look too much into the win that we had against them, I don’t think,” Tuchscherer cautioned. “This is a quality, quality opponent we’re playing – until last week they were ahead of us in the (national) rankings, and they’ve won more games than us this year. I think it’s a pretty solid match-up the whole way around.”
The Cascades-Dinos match-up represents a fascinating clash between a high-octane offence and a lockdown defence. Calgary was the second-most prolific team in Canada West at 74.8 points per game, while UFV’s defence was the second-stingiest, allowing an average of 58.7 points.
Point guard Jenna Kaye is the Dinos’ top scorer (14.6 points per game), but Tuchscherer said his squad has always had the most trouble stopping shooting guard Tamara Jarrett (12.4 ppg). The Cascades also need to keep close tabs on Calgary’s Megan Lang – she led Canada West in three-point shooting percentage at .515.
“Their five starters are all averaging over 10 points per game, and that’s very unusual in Canada West,” Tuchscherer noted. “We’ve really got to be aware of what those players do, and take away the first and second options from them and make them a little bit uncomfortable offensively.”
The last time the two teams met, the Cascades put together perhaps their best offensive performance of the season. Guards Tessa Klassen and Aieisha Luyken were on fire – both players scored 26 points and drained five three-pointers.
Klassen hopes her team can find that kind of rhythm again in the rematch this week.
“I think we just played our game,” she analyzed. “We didn’t try to force anything – we just let the game come to us, essentially.
“That game was a really good turning point for us. We’d had ups and downs in the beginning of the season, but that game, we played really well as a team. Everyone was contributing, doing what they were supposed to be doing offensively and defensively. We were thriving together.”
PLAYOFFS TIP OFF THURSDAY
The Cascades women open their best-of-three series against Calgary at 6 p.m. on Thursday, with the men tipping off vs. Lethbridge at 8 p.m. The schedule is the same for Game 2 on Friday. On Saturday, if necessary, the women would play at 5 p.m. and the men at 7 p.m.
The winners advance to the Canada West Final Four.