After two scrappy matches, the stage is set for the provincial varsity boys basketball final: The Sisler Spartans will look to topple the defending champion Garden City Fighting Gophers.
The eighth-seeded Spartans are coming in red-hot, but they're no stranger to the underdog position. It was the one they were in during the quarter-finals, when they upset the top-seeded St. Paul's Crusaders to earn their way to the Final Four.
In the semifinal game on Friday night at the University of Manitoba's Investors Group Athletic Centre, the Spartans beat the fifth-ranked Kelvin Clippers to clinch their place in Monday night's championship game.
"I didn't see this happening (at the start of the season)," said Sisler head coach Scott Martin, as his team piled victorious into the dressing room. "We have a young team, I thought we could improve and be competitive. I didn't think we'd go this far... it feels great."
The last time Sisler played Kelvin, Martin said, the Spartans gave up a lot of "easy baskets," and lost. But this time, Sisler put up a stiffer defence, taking the lead early and holding it against a late Kelvin surge.
The game stood at 46-33 in Sisler's favour at the half, 60-51 at the end of the third; but in the final quarter, the Clippers rallied for a final push. With six minutes left in the game, a pair of free throws by Kelvin guard Ivan Paskvalin brought the game to within a single point.
But over the next few minutes, a rash of fouls sent Paskvalin and forward Dikan Gjruic out of the game, and the Spartans eked out a little more breathing room.
In the end, the Clippers couldn't finish the comeback they started: When the final buzzer sounded, drowned by the raucous cheers of the Sisler faithful, the Spartans had downed Kelvin 78-72. Sisler guard Joseph Medrano pocketed 29 of those points to lead his team in scoring.
"It's the best feeling ever," said Spartans senior post Tanner Smith, who collected 16 points and 25 rebounds in the match.
"We were a bit nervous (in the fourth), but I knew we'd get it back and keep going."
Now, the Spartans must prepare for Monday's challenge, attempting to unseat the defending champs.
In Friday's other semifinal, Garden City beat the 11th-seeded Sturgeon Heights Huskies to advance and a chance to defend its title.
The Huskies put up an inspired effort, keeping it within reach through much of the game. But the Gophers widened their game-long lead in the dying minutes to win 78-62.
Garden City post Tynan Reyes led his team in scoring with 26 points. "It was a really tough game, we knew it would be," said Garden City coach Phil Penner, noting that Sturgeon Heights is a "tough matchup" for the Gophers.
As for their final rival, "Sisler is probably the hottest team in the province right now," Penner said. "They're playing great. It's going to be a fantastic game."
Both provincial finals are set for Monday night at Investors Group Athletic Centre.
The varsity girls game between the Glenlawn Lions and the Oak Park Raiders begins at 6 p.m. The boys final begins at 8 p.m.