EDMONTON – For the third time in as many Canada West playoff games this season, the UBC Thunderbirds went into hostile territory and emerged with a victory.
And this time they left with a trophy in hand, claiming their 10th CW men's basketball championship thanks to a 72-70 win over the No. 1 seed Alberta Golden Bears in front of 1,780 rowdy fans at the Saville Community Sports Centre in Edmonton on Saturday.
UBC's road to the championship wasn't easy, with the West Coast power earning a quarter-final neutral site win over the Saskatchewan Huskies in Calgary last week, before downing the host Dinos the following night in the conference semis.
The 2020 CW playoffs proved to be memorable for the road warrior T-Birds, who went through the conference's top two seeds en route to their first conference title since 2013.
"It's the old cliché – we're really just focussed on ourselves, and I think we really are. We're peaking at the right time and the guys are enjoying what they're doing," said UBC head coach Kevin Hanson of his team's wins over No. 1 Alberta and No. 2 Calgary.
The T-Birds controlled the first quarter, subduing the near-capacity crowd with a 24-10 lead after the opening 10 minutes, thanks in large part to Manroop Clair's trio of three-pointers.
"They were all over us out of the gate. I thought we had a bit of nerves and not our best performance of the season," said Alberta head coach Barnaby Craddock. "At the end of the day, they had some guys step up and deserved to win. They definitively played better than us on the evening, so the right team won today."
The second quarter saw the Bears work their way back into the game, as the regular season champs outscored UBC 23-15. Guard Tyus Jefferson scored six of his team-high 24 points in the frame for Alberta, who headed into the break down 39-33.
That six-point UBC cushion held through the third quarter, with the score 59-53 entering the final 10 minutes.
After playing from behind all night, Alberta's first lead of the game set the scene for an epic finish. A steal-and-score from Jefferson with 3:17 left in the fourth quarter handed the Bears a 67-66 lead.
But it was the Thunderbirds who managed to find an edge in the final three-plus minutes, closing out the memorable win with some clutch threes and timely defence.
"You have to weather the storm and we weathered some of their storms, and one of them was big," said Hanson of Jefferson's key play. "They got up the big point, we came down and hit a three – that happened a couple of times."
"It was an emotional win for us. I thought our fifth-year guys Manroop Clair and Jadon Cohee hit some big, big shots for us down the stretch," Hanson said of his veterans, who combined for 43 points. "Luckily we were able to hang on in the end there."
Up next for both teams is a trip to the U SPORTS Final 8, as UBC and Alberta head to Ottawa March 6-8. UBC enters the tournament looking for their first national title since 1972, while Alberta last won in 2002.