T-Birds fall in entertaining duel at UBC Invitational

VANCOUVER – The University of British Columbia Thunderbirds men’s basketball team fell in the final seconds of their preseason matchup against the visiting Ottawa Gee-Gees 84-77. So far in the three-game UBC Invitational at the Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre, the host T-Birds have one win and one loss.

What could have easily been labeled as a heartbreaker for the ‘Birds was instead celebrated by head coach Kevin Hanson as a lucrative learning experience for the team and a hopeful springboard into the upcoming season. Both rookies and veterans helped UBC command play for majority of the game, as forwards Conor Morgan (Victoria, B.C.) and David Wagner (Kamloops, B.C.) led the team in scoring, Morgan with 20 points and Wagner with 14.

“Overall I’m pretty happy,” Hanson said. “[Ottawa] returned 11 players from last year’s team and we’ve got eight new bodies, so that was sort of an indication in the last three minutes of play. We had the game in hand but the more experienced team won. But it’s only October 3 and March is a long ways away. Overall, certainly the energy and effort was outstanding – I really liked that – but our execution down the stretch needs to improve.”

Morgan made a layup with less than four minutes to go in the fourth to put UBC up 77-70. But Caleb Agada made one of two free throws for Ottawa with 3:32 remaining to start a game-ending 14-0 run for the visiting Gee-Gees, who were runners up at the 2015 CIS Final 8 in Toronto.

Ottawa’s Mike L’Africain hit a three-point jump shot and then one foul shot on a later trip down the floor to get his team within a bucket at 77-75. Gee-Gee Brody Maracle tied the game after a turnover with just over a minute to go. On the ensuing possession, Agada stole an entry pass and proceeded to nail a triple to give Ottawa the lead for good, as the visitors hit four foul shots late to seal the win.

UBC leapt into the game with a 9-2 run in the first three minutes, dominating play. Third-year forward Morgan led the charge with two layups in two minutes, followed by a Wagner three-pointer. Wagner went 4-for-5 and collected nine points in the first half, his most impressive of which came in back-to-back baskets five minutes in. After scoring a jumper set up by fourth-year guard Jordan Jensen-Whyte (Calgary), Wagner commandeered possession at half court and returned play back toward Ottawa’s zone to net yet another layup.

Rookie Taylor Browne (Surrey, B.C.) sank a three-point basket in opening seconds of the second quarter to give UBC an 11-point lead at 26-15.

Ottawa closed the gap and used a 6-0 run on buckets by L’Africain (three-pointer) and Maracle, and a foul shot from Agada to close the gap to 42-41 going into halftime.

L’Africain three pointer with 5:43 left in the third gave the Gee-Gees the lead for the first time at 51-50. Then and Matt Plunkett converted a turnover into another long distance bucket to put Ottawa up 54-50.

UBC fought back with an 11-1 run that bridged the third and fourth quarters to go up by nine at 67-58. The surge was capped off by Morgan’s three to open the final period of play.

“We’re going to take a lot of positives out of this loss,” Hanson said. “We did a lot of things positively. We competed with one of the best teams in the country and that’s a good indication for us. That and it was a real team effort. I was really happy with the young guys, and I thought the veterans did a really good job, too. But in the end it comes down to the fundamentals. We’ve got to rebound the basketball, eliminate our turnovers and just stuff that you build with experience. So I think we’re in a really good position right now.”

UBC will finish off its season-opening tournament on Sunday, with a 1:30 p.m. contest against the Memorial Seahawks at the Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre.

The first game of the day will see Alberta battle Guelph at 9:30 a.m. Ottawa will play Northern B.C. at 11:30 a.m. Admission to all games is free.