THUNDER BAY – Ryan Thomson said he knew from the outset his Lakehead Thunderwolves were in a dog fight.
In the end, they were chewed up and spit out by an upset-minded Laurier Golden Hawks squad, the No. 10 seed in the OUA men's basketball playoffs, a team coming off an upset win on Wednesday night against seventh-seeded Queen's.
Powered by 20 first-half point by a Kyrie Irving-inspired Ali Sow, a sharpshooter unafraid to fire up a shot from just about anywhere on the court, Laurier overcame a three-point deficit after three quarters on Saturday night and earned a spot in the OUA semifinals against the Western Mustangs with a surprising 68-64 victory over the No. 8 team in the country.
“This one hurt more than anything because I know how much these guys worked every day. It's the way these things turn out,” said Isaiah Traylor, bottled up and double-teamed all night long by the Laurier defence and held to just 11 points in his final game with the Thunderwolves.
“Basketball is a small part of life. You've got to look at the bigger picture. You've got to learn how to lose to win. You've got to roll with the punches. I know Lakehead is on the ride up from here.”
The second-seeded Wolves just couldn't build any momentum.
The Golden Hawks quieted the crowed out of the gate, opening a quick 5-0 lead, No matter what the Thunderwolves were able to deliver, Laurier had an answer.
Lakehead jumped in front 14-9 in the first, only to have Sow and Adnam Begovic bury back-to-back threes to close out the quarter, the Golden Hawks up 15-14.
Lakehead turned on the jets in the second, Laouis Msambya powering a 17-1 run that saw the Thunderwolves jump in front by 11, leading 34-23, scoring three times and adding a long assist on a Matthew Edwards fast-break hoop.
But it was juist another challenge to overcome for the Golden Hawks, who won seven of 10 games after the Christmas break to finish the regular season at 11-11.
Sow nailed three shots from behind the arc, added a two-pointer and Matt Minutillo hit a three of his own just before the half, Laurier having climbed to within two, trailing 39-37.
“I knew I kind of had to be aggressive and get our game back going. I knew once we got back into the game we had a chance,” said Sow, who had 31 points in a 20-point loss to Lakehead earlier this season and led all scorers on Saturday night with 27.
Laurier and Lakehead traded the lead five times in the third quarter and took the lead on a deep three-pointer by guard Alston Harris, his second in the final1:35 of the period.
The Wolves held the lead for the first half of the fourth, but then began uncharacteristically turning the ball over as they tried to drive the lane and Laurier made them pay.
Begovic hit a trey and then Sow followed suit, firing over Harris to give the Golden Hawks a 64-60 lead.
With 19.8 seconds left, Traylor went to the line, hit his first and tried to intentionally miss the second, only to be called for a lane violation as he took off after the ball. He hit one more three, his only bucket of the second half, with 7.9 to go, but Laurier put it away at the line.
“I think they did a good job making us play by their pace, which for most of the year we haven't really let teams do,” Thomson said. “They slowed us down, we couldn't get off our ball screens with any sense of urgency and that really hurt us.
“Guys like Laoui and Alston, who are really dynamic off mid pick-and-roll, it just kind of made it very difficult for those guys. They did a really good job at shrinking the floor, getting guys in gaps and ,making us have to make more plays.”