Leith Dunick, tbnewswatch.com
Lakehead's Ben Johnson (left) and Joseph Jones work on their dribbling skills Thursday at the Carleton Ravens gym in Ottawa. The No. 7 Thunderwolves kick off nationals Friday at noon against No. 2 Cape Breton at Scotiabank Place.
Nationals have not treated Ben Johnson too well in the past.
A shooter who likes to keep the opposition honest with his long-distance ways, the Pictou, N.S. native was stymied his first two trips to the CIS Final 8 men's basketball championship, in Halifax nonetheless, playing in front of friends and family.
In two do-or-die opening-round games the past two seasons, Johnson was a combined 1-for-9 from the field, collecting a grand total of four points.
Not surprisingly, the Lakehead Thunderwolves lost both contests, though the blame could hardly be laid at the 24-year-old Johnson’s feet. A year ago LU was missing Ryan Thomson with a foot injury and centre Yoosrie Salhias’ wonky back left him a shadow of his former self.
Johnson, in his third and final season with Lakehead, wants redemption this weekend in Ottawa, where the Thunderwolves kick off another national title hunt Friday at noon against the No. 2 seed Cape Breton Capers.
“Absolutely, I really have to try to stretch that defence as much as I can and I know the guys are going to try to find me,” said Johnson, who last season set a university record, hitting nine three-pointers in a single contest against the Windsor Lancers.
Though not the flashiest player on the Thunderwolves, the statistics prove as the NCAA transfer Johnson goes, so go the Thunderwolves.
He's their bellwether for success.
A dozen times in the 2012-13 regular season Johnson hit double figures. In those games the Wolves went 10-2. Three times he was held off the score sheet entirely. Not surprisingly, Lakehead lost all three contests.
On Thursday, after a loose hour-long practice at the Carleton Ravens gym, their second of the day, Johnson said he’s going to put his past shooting woes where they belongs -- behind him.
He plans to remember the 11 points he put up last Saturday in Toronto, points that helped push LU past Windsor in the bronze-medal game, securing a fourth nationals berth in as many years.
In Johnson’s mind, he's going to see nothing but net on Friday.
“Every shot I take, I think it's going in,” Johnson said. “That's kind of the mentality I’m going with. It's the attitude coach Scott Morrison is looking for from all his players this weekend at Scotiabank Place.”
Morrison, a passionate coach unafraid to loudly speak his mind, said every year is different, with its own set of circumstances.
This year he’s taking a bit of a different approach, at least now that the team is away from Thunder Bay and out of the spotlight, as much as one of the final eight teams in the country can be out of the spotlight.
“We’ve got two types of people on our team right now, guys who this is their last crack at it and guys who this is their first crack at it. We know how to get ready and we’re also trying to enjoy it a little bit more this year.”
The Capers present a different challenge than UBC, Trinity Western or Fraser Valley, the teams that dashed Lakehead's hopes in a hurry the past three seasons.
That may bode well for the Thunderwolves hopes, Morrison said.
“I think if we do our thing we have a chance to win. Maybe other years we were a little more worried about size and different stuff. Cape Breton plays a very similar style, and maybe that makes us more relaxed and able to just go play.”
That’s precisely what Salhia plans to do.
“We’ve been here four years now. We know what we’ve got to do. We’re just trying to get ready. We just want to get out of the first round. That’s what we’re focused on. We’re not even thinking ahead. Its all Cape Breton now.”
Leith Dunick is in Ottawa with the Thunderwolves this weekend. Follow him on Twitter at @LeithDunick for in-game updates, or read his game recaps on tbnewswatch.com.