Saturday, March 15, 2008

The upset of the century

Bigger than the Giants and Patriots. More remarkable than the Edmonton Oilers' Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Finals. More unprecedented than the seventh-seeded Winnipeg Wesmen knocking off the undefeated McMaster Marauders. Even more unexpected than Barnsley knocking off Liverpool and Manchester United. There's nothing that's happened yet this century that can compare to the Acadia Axemen's improbable, almost unbelievable 82-80 double overtime upset of the Carleton Ravens tonight in the CIS men's basketball championships. They'll go on to face Brock tomorrow in a final no one would have predicted. As Streaming Sports Network Canada's Mark Masters noted on their webcast, "This is a game that will go down in the history books as one of the best all-time games in national history." I'd go even beyond that.

Carleton has been one of the most dominant programs in any sport ever, winning the last five national championships, going undefeated in OUA competition this year, and winning 18 straight games at the nationals to tie UVic's record. Acadia barely made it into this tournament, squeaking in from the wild-card slot in a somewhat contested decision over Brandon: as Mark Wacyk of noted on the SSN broadcast, "Some people didn't even think they should be here." I for one, picked Brandon by a nose for the wild-card berth. The Halifax Chronicle-Herald's Chad Lucas now looks like a genius for his post defending the inclusion of the Axemen over the Bobcats and the overall strength of the AUS conference.

As Masters commented, it's tough to grasp the significance of this upset. "You try to wrap your head around the magnitude of what just happened here," he said. "It's a game that will go down in the history books as one of the best all-time games in national history." The Globe and Mail's Michael Grange captured the significance perfectly in the lede of his article. "The Acadia Axeman chopped down a giant," he wrote. "It took two overtime periods, countless lead changes and surviving a controversial reversal of a basket that may well have decided the game with 21 seconds to play, but they will be playing Brock University Sunday afternoon after an 82-80 win that not only ended Carleton University's remarkable five-year run of CIS dominance but will likely stand as one of the most remarkable games in CIS history."

It certainly wasn't an easy win. Acadia held the lead most of the way through, but Carleton wasn't ready to give up on their dreams of a sixth straight championship and kept fighting back, forcing first one overtime, then a second, and even having a chance to win at the end buzzer. Acadia might have been able to pull further away if not for a controversial overturn of a call near the end: they airballed a long jumper, but Sean Berry grabbed the rebound, hit the shot and got the foul. After extensive consultations, the referees overturned the basket and gave Carleton the ball, though, determining that a shot clock violation had occurred. Acadia coach Les Berry was furious, but the SSN guys agreed that it was the right call, and I'm in a mind to agree. The nice thing is it didn't wind up making a difference: it would have been bad if Carleton had won off that call, and it would have been worse if Acadia needed the call to complete this upset. This way, there's no asterisk, and nothing to cast a shadow on their triumph.

The key to victory for the Axemen was a solid defence. As Masters noted,
"When it counted the most, the Ravens just could not hit a shot." Wacyk agreed, citing the defensive play of the Axemen as explanation for the Ravens' abysmal 33% field-goal percentage. "Carleton did not get a lot of open looks," he said. Acadia also pulled off the rare feat of beating the Ravens on the glass, outrebounding them 38-33.

Acadia got a particularly great performance from Achuil Lual, who did a fantastic job of shutting down CIS Player of the Year Aaron Doornekamp. Wacyk attributed Luau's performance as the top factor that let Acadia win, and I'm of a mind to agree: Carleton is tremendously deep, which is why they were able to hang around for so long, but minimizing the impact of a star like Doornekamp is vital for an upset. Lual told the SSN guys in a post-game interview that his defence is the main reason he’s on the squad. “Since I started playing ball, I wasn't really a big offensive threat,” he said. He recognized Doornekamp’s talent, but wasn’t intimidated. “All I was thinking was play my hardest and try to stop him.” Acadia coach Les Berry also had high praise for Lual. "He matches up against the best player on every team," he said. "His intensity is through the roof. He's the most intense player in our league."

Offensively, the key for the Axemen was Peter Leighton, who poured in a game-high 23 points on 60 per cent shooting, including making four of seven attempts from deep. As Wacyk noted, "Leighton played the game of his life." Leonil Santil also had a great game for Acadia, chipping in 22 points and adding nine rebounds.

Lual cited historical precedent, where UVic's reign of 18 straight victories at the nationals─which Carleton tied with Friday's quarter-final win over the Alberta Golden Bears─ended at the hands of an underdog. "Nobody thought we were going to do it," he said. "We used that as motivation and went from that."

Wacyk also made a good comment about how Acadia still needed to excel, even with Carleton having trouble from the floor. "1985, everyone had Georgetown and Villanova played a perfect game," he said. "Tonight, Acadia played as close to a perfect game as you'll see."

CIS Coach of the Year Mike Katz of the University of Toronto Varsity Blues told the SSN guys the victory should be properly appreciated for its uniqueness, rather than rationalized. "It's just the beauty of sport," he said. "You can't overanalyze it, just enjoy it and move on." As Dale Stevens wrote on, "The reign is over!" Carleton's dynasty has been good for the coverage of CIS competition, as dominance is always interesting. There's a limit to the amount of times one can expound on that theme, though, and it's good to see that this isn't just a one-horse league. The kings are dead: long live the kings.

One interesting thing that may come out of this win is a strengthening of the push for a 16-team tournament, which Wayne Kondro of the Ottawa Citizen reports already enjoys significant support. If the wild-card team can knock off a five-time defending champion, it suggests that CIS parity is very strong. This is further evidenced by the quality of several of the teams that missed out, such as Brandon, Katz' Blues, and the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees. If there's a way to make a 16-team tournament work around school commitments and expenses, I'd be all for it. I'm not as big of a fan of the scheme Kondro outlines though, where the tournament is split into four regional ones and only the four champions play. That essentially is a contraction, rather than an expansion, of the nationals, as there already are regional tournaments in the lead-up to the CIS championships. This also won't necessarily lead to the best teams playing at the end, as is evidenced by tomorrow's finalists: Brock finished third in the OUA playoffs, while Acadia picked up silvers at the AUS tournament. One final point against regionalizing the nationals is that most Canadian papers can't afford to send four people to cover university basketball in different locations, so your quality of coverage will be greatly decreased. This isn't just a newspaper issue, either: it would be pretty hard to convince the Score to pay for four different camera crews and commentary teams to fly to different cities and be billeted there for most of a week, in addition to the technical issues with broadcasting from that many arenas. If the nationals go to 16 teams, it should be a full-week tournament in one central location: now that would get some significant coverage.

Regardless of expansion, as Wacyk rightfully concluded on the SSN broadcast, this sort of match bodes well for Canadian university basketball. "Any time a team loses for the first time in six years its a big story, but I think the bigger story is the incredible excitement generated by this ball game," he said. "CIS basketball is a tremendous product, and tonight we got one of the greatest games in the history of the CIS. It just shows you how great CIS basketball can be."

Update: Some new links on this: Neate has good pieces at Out Of Left Field and The CIS Blog, and Chris Stevenson of the Ottawa Sun has a very impressive deadline story.

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