If the Wesmen Classic final was to be a test, the University of Winnipeg men's hoopsters just couldn't pass, falling 81-71 to the Ottawa Gee-Gees on Monday.
'I think we gave them a little bit too much respect... It's tough to go out like that, fight so hard and come up short. You can't spot a team 23 points in the half'
That means the bragging rights will have to wait another year, at least. Although the Wesmen have won the tournament that bears their name a record 11 times in its 47-year history, they haven't won since 2006. So coming into this year's final -- after dispatching the Lakeland College Rustlers and the University of Manitoba Bisons -- the home team was hungry to show they could compete against the fearsome Gee-Gees, the second-ranked team in the nation.
In the end, despite a gutsy second-half comeback attempt in front of about 600 pumped-up fans at the Duckworth Centre, the Wesmen couldn't quite do it. Instead, the Winnipeg team fell behind quickly in the face of a precision Ottawa assault, trailing 47-24 by the time the first half was done.
"I think we gave them a little bit too much respect," said star Wesmen forward Steven Wesley, who finished with 23 points and was named player of the game. "If we had played the whole thing, I know we can beat these guys. It's tough to go out like that, fight so hard and come up short. You can't spot a team 23 points in the half."
Winnipeg actually outshot the Gee-Gees 39-33 in the first half, but the difference in quality showed on the scoreboard: The Gee-Gees made 51.5 per cent of their shots and seven of their 15 three-point attempts, while the Wesmen put the ball through the net on only 30.8 per cent of their throws, and missed on all seven of their shots from outside the arc.
But the Wesmen, led by 6-6 Wesley, didn't crumple after intermission. Instead, they started driving hard and making baskets, shooting 58.3 per cent in the final two quarters. By the time the third frame was done, the Wesmen had outscored Ottawa 29-17 to close the gap and make it a game; with just over seven minutes left in the fourth, they had crept up to 66-57.
Wesley and second-year guard Chris Baxter were rolling red-hot: Wesley scored 19 of his points in the second half, and Baxter scored 14 of his 16, including three baskets in the dying minutes. But that was as close as the Wesmen could get. Led by tournament MVP Johnny Berhanemeskel, who scored 22 points and snagged eight rebounds, and boosted by their eight three-pointers (the Wesmen made none), the Gee-Gees clinched their first-ever Wesmen Classic title.
"We were a little laid-back in the first half, which you can't do against a Top-2 team in the country, that's for sure," said Wesley, who was playing on a sore ankle after twisting it a few days earlier.
"It's a learning experience. We can't give anybody too much respect. We're a good team, but we just came out real late, and gave 'em too much early."