IT took a thriller to find a winner, as the Garden City Fighting Gophers junior varsity basketball squad claimed the first Wesmen Classic championship on Friday.
The Fighting Gophers clawed past the Maples Marauders 70-68 at Duckworth Centre, barely surviving a fourth-quarter nailbiter as 300 fans howled in the stands. And the two teams, which punched their tickets to the final in a 16-team tournament earlier this month, really brought the fireworks to help kick off the University of Winnipeg's 47th annual basketball bonanza, which is the oldest and largest of its kind in Canada.
It was a key win for Garden City, taking its third Wesmen Classic title in five years. "My boys are phenomenal," said Fighting Gophers coach Iggy Grinevsky, as his team celebrated the win. "They got a lot of heart, and they're determined. They were down, and I told them, 'We didn't play a good first half, but we're going to make our runs.' And they did. They believed in it."
Down 35-40 at the half, the Fighting Gophers roared back to take a 59-56 lead in the fourth quarter. Much of that pushback came courtesy of Trezon Morcilla, who put up 20 points and five rebounds to lead the game in scoring, and seal his title as tournament MVP. But the Gophers' comeback crumbled late in the fourth period, when Eric Braganza capitalized on a Gophers miss, tore down the court and popped a lay-up to squeak the Maurauders back into a 60-59 lead with five minutes left.
That set the stage for madcap final minutes, as the teams traded fouls, baskets and free-throws into the dying seconds: just when it looked like Garden City might win, Marauder Brian Casimiro put back a pair of free throws to tie the game at 68 with just 16 seconds left in regulation. But in the end, it was the Fighting Gophers' Marcel Arruda-Welch who would be the hero, as he dashed into the fray to make the deuce with just seven seconds on the clock.
"It was just open to the right side of the court, so I went up and just hit a shot," said Morcilla, 15, who finished with 17 points. "I thought I could (make it)."
There's a lot of basketball yet to be played in the four-day event. It opened Friday with the first four games of the eight-team high school tournament. Those daytime tilts saw the MBCI Hawks soar past the John Taylor Pipers 80-73, while the Oak Park Raiders beat the host UW Collegiate team 104-46. Later in the afternoon, the Kelvin Clippers clipped the Sturgeon Heights Huskies 70-46, while the Garden City varsity team crushed Maples 84-43.
Now, MBCI and Oak Park will face off in a semifinal today at 4 p.m., while Kelvin and Garden City will duke it out at 4 p.m. on Sunday. The winners of those games move on to the final, which is slated for Monday night at 6 p.m.
Meanwhile, the university side of the tournament launches today, starting with a 10 a.m. exhibition women's game between the Wesmen and visiting Dickinson State University Bluehawks. The Classic continues through Dec. 30, with the university semifinals on Sunday and championship set for Monday. The Classic also features a Saturday shootout competition and a dunk contest. The full tournament schedule is available online at wesmen.ca, and all games will be webcast live on that site. Adult passes are $10 on Saturday and Sunday, and $12 on Monday. Kids 12 and under get in free.