Before they flew to Quebec to compete for a national championship, Manitoba’s under-17 men’s basketball team went on a field trip.
Head coach Stephen Tackie took the team to the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame, to give the players a sense of what athletes from the province have accomplished over the decades.
After the Manitobans beat their rivals from B.C. in the national semifinal at Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, becoming the first male team to play for a gold medal in the 36-year history of Basketball Manitoba, Tackie reminded the team of that outing.
"I wanted them to see where Manitoba has been in sports in general," he said, "and I told them now we’ve done something unique in Manitoba amateur sports. The kids were fired up about that."
Despite losing to powerhouse Ontario in the final, the silver medalists were still pleased with their 5-1 record to end a breakthrough tournament.
Manitoba scored lopsided wins over P.E.I., Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories and Nova Scotia to set up the semifinal showdown with B.C.
"Near the beginning of our time together as a team… we had a goal setting," Tackie said, "and the guys said they wanted to medal at the nationals and they wanted to beat B.C."
The Manitobans — most of whom had suffered tough losses to the West Coasters in previous national events — had a chance to kill two birds with one stone.
Employing the same ferocious defence that became its trademark, Team Manitoba led narrowly for most of the game before a strong run early in the fourth quarter extended the lead. The 88-76 win was arguably the biggest in the history of the provincial men’s program.
"We all knew we had a chance," said point guard Ben Miller, a Wolseley resident and Westgate Mennonite Collegiate student who was named a second-team tournament all-star. "We knew we’d have to play our best basketball. The way it came together was really good."
Justus Alleyn, a guard from Charleswood who finally made a provincial team this year in his final try, said the win would do wonders for Manitoba basketball.
"I’d say beating B.C. was a big accomplishment for us," said the St. Paul’s student. "It showed that we’re as good or better than those players (from other provinces) and we can match up with anyone."
For Tackie, the silver medal was a validation of his decision to go with the most athletic roster he could assemble.
The Manitobans wanted to be the fastest team on the floor, to pressure teams into making mistakes and to wear them down by the fourth quarter.
"We knew were going to be small compared to other bigger provinces," he said. "But we were athletic. That’s what turned out to be our money."
The focus on defence proved to be the difference as the Manitobans frustrated a much bigger B.C. team.
"We always got a body on every shot they took," Miller said. "And we pressured them to force turnovers. Our defence improved (over the summer.) People understood how it worked and how well we could do it."