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Basketball: Halifax has always been Thunderwolves’ focus

Knowing is half the battle. If the Lakehead Thunderwolves take the saying to heart, then they’re halfway to a CIS men’s basketball championship.
Knowing is half the battle.

If the Lakehead Thunderwolves take the saying to heart, then they’re halfway to a CIS men’s basketball championship.

Earlier this season, LU coach Scott Morrison took his squad on a whirlwind run through his old stomping grounds in the Maritimes. Morrison, who played his college ball at the University of Prince Edward Island and spent a season coaching the Dalhousie women’s team before landing in Thunder Bay in 2003, wanted his players to see what they were playing toward.

That early visit to the Halifax Metro Centre, where the No. 4-seed Thunderwolves will take on the No. 5-seed Trinity Western Spartans on Friday afternoon, has stuck with the players.

“It was a good feeling to step in there and see where we would be playing nationals at,” said guard Joseph Jones, whose buzzer-beating three-pointer at the end of the third quarter Saturday night provided Lakehead with the momentum it needed to push past No. 1-ranked Carleton 77-62 and capture the team’s first-ever OUA championship.

“When you step in that arena, it’s a feeling you don’t ever want to forget. You want to come right back. You don’t just want to be here the first time and say, ‘We saw it, but we’re not playing in it again.’ We want to be like, ‘We saw it and we’re coming back to take care of business.’”

Morrison then gave his troops a midseason reminder, just in case anyone had forgotten the message.

“He gave us posters halfway through the season, a picture of the Metro Centre to put in our lockers,” said first-year guard Ben Johnson, author of four three-pointers in last Friday’s 71-69 semifinal win over Ottawa, the game that punched LU’s ticket to Halifax.

“It’s kind of cool to see it all come together, to see that there is kind of a method to his madness.”

Morrison, who’s turned a program around that famously lost 21 of 22 games in 2006-07, said he did it because he’s not just satisfied with getting to nationals, a feeling he admitted prevailed a year ago when, as the sixth seed, they were knocked out in their opening game, falling 79-58 to the No. 3 UBC Thunderbirds.

This year, Morrison, there are higher expectations – much higher expectations. He wants his players ready.

“We weren’t fooling anybody last year, especially ourselves. We were quite happy to be there. We tried our best, but we weren’t really prepared the way we should have been,” he said on Monday. “This year we can honestly say we’re not going to Halifax or going to nationals. We’re going to try to win.

“We’ve already been to the nationals last year and we’ve already been to Halifax this year for an extended period. We’ve seen the Metro Centre, so we have no excuses to be thinking about those things. We have to be keeping our mind on the prize.”

There’s no room for mistakes in a tournament like this. Like March Madness south of the border, your first mistake can be your last in a tournament that rewards wins and immediately eliminates losses.

First up for the Wolves is a team they are decidedly unfamiliar with.

Morrison, who had seen a little tape on Trinity Western, said it looks like their game plan against Carleton – a stifling defence and a long-distance attack – might be called upon once again against the Spartans when the two teams tip off Friday at 2:15 p.m.

Not that that’s much of a surprise, it’s how the Wolves have won all season long.

“It’s kind of intimidating looking at their roster and you’re reading the size and the weights and you think you’re reading the big men, but you’re reading the guards. Then they keep getting bigger and bigger. So that’s something I want the guys to start thinking about now, in terms of the requirement it’s going to battle those types of guys. If we can do that, I think we have some other strengths that we can take the forefront,” Morrison said.

Venzal Russell, who hit the winning shot just before the buzzer sounded the end of the contest, said he doesn’t know much about the Spartans, but added the Wolves haven’t really thought too much about what the opposition can and can’t do all season long.

“We’re going to come and play, with our style of ball,” said OUA second-team all-star Russell, in his third year of eligibility in Thunder Bay after two seasons at Minnesota’s Vermillion Community College.

The Spartans, who lost the Canada West semifinal to Saskatchewan, will be making their first trip to nationals and are led by 6-foot-6 Jacob Doerksen, the fifth-leading scorer in the nation with a 21.8-point average He was also the 2008 CIS player of the year.

Doerksen averaged 27.6 points in five Canada West playoff games.

In many eyes, that still makes the Wolves the underdogs. It doesn’t matter what people think, Russell said.

“Not everybody believed in Lakehead,” Russell said. “Last year everybody was saying it was a lucky season. Now everybody knows we’re for real and we’re coming to win.”

Claw marks
: It’s a homecoming for more than just Morrison. Johnson, who spent two seasons at Saint Rose College in Albany, N.Y., grew up in Pictou, N.S., a couple hours away from Halifax. His mother played basketball at Halifax’s Dalhousie University at the same time as Brendan King’s father … Other first-round matchups include UBC taking on Acadia, Carleton versus Concordia and Saskatchwan against Dalhousie.

Thunder Bay Source editor Leith Dunick will be in Halifax this weekend with the Thunderwolves following their road to the national championship. For complete coverage, keep logging on to

Leith Dunick

About the Author: Leith Dunick

A proud Nova Scotian who has called Thunder Bay home since 2002, Leith is Dougall Media's director of news, but still likes to tell your stories too. Wants his Expos back and to see Neil Young at least one more time. Twitter: @LeithDunick
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