Thirty-three years ago Bill Walton and the Portland Trail Blazers downed Julius Erving – fresh from a stint in the ABA – and the Philadelphia 76ers to win the NBA championship.
Steve Nash had just turned three years old and the Eagles hit New Kid in Town was blazing up the Billboard record charts.
A third of a century later, that’s a fitting description for the Lakehead Thunderwolves men’s basketball team, a squad that last weekend charged its way into the Final 8 for the first time since John Zanatta and Jim Zoet led the1977 team to a championship-game loss against Acadia.
The current edition of the Wolves downed host Ottawa Gee-Gees 78-73 last Saturday in the OUA bronze-medal game.
The win locked up the sixth seed at the tournament this weekend and a Friday date with the third-ranked, but very powerful, University of British Columbia Thunderbirds.
The Wolves are the new kid in the nation’s capital, while the Thunderbirds are making a fifth straight appearance at the Final 8, though seeking their first title since 1972.
The magnitude of the moment is not lost on LU guard Jamie Searle, one of a handful of Thunderwolves who suffered through the ignominy of a 1-21 disaster in 2006-07.
"We’ve been waiting for this for a long time," the Belleville, Ont. native said. "We’ve had some ups and downs at Lakehead. It’s been a couple more downs the last few years, but winning that game last Saturday was unbelievable." He remembers the 2007 season, played without former star forward Kiraan Posey, like it was yesterday.
"That year we were young. I was a freshman. There were eight others of us. We were just so inexperienced. We lost a lot of games that we probably could have won, but we all put in work," said Searle, noting an atmosphere of changed settled in over the CJ Sanders Fieldhouse after his rookie campaign.
"My first summer up here there was one guy with me (practicing). Last summer there were nine or 10 of us. We’ve put a lot of work in, not just during the regular season, but in the offseason and it’s finally starting to pay off."
Lakehead coach Scott Morrison suffered through six losing seasons before this year’s 17-5 effort came along. Until last Saturday, getting that first and only win of the season against McMaster on Jan. 12, 2007 was the highlight of his career in Thunder Bay.
That’s all changed now, said the Prince Edward Island native.
This edition of the Wolves, he continued, just seems to find a way to win when it absolutely has to win.
"It’s kind of something we haven’t done well since I’ve been here. Even some years we’ve been competitive we’ve had chances to win some games, and threw it away and couldn’t finish it off. This year it’s been the complete opposite," Morrison said as his players readied for practice on Monday.
"We’ve finished most games we’ve been ahead in, and as long as we are within striking distance at the start of the fourth, we always feel we have a chance."
Morrison knows his squad is in tough against the once top-ranked Thunderbirds, finalists at last year’s Final 8, also held at Scotiabank Place in the nation’s capital. Morrison said they’ve already proven they can beat the top team in the country, downing Carleton in the first half.
"Hopefully we can keep that in the back of our minds this week when we’re preparing, that we already beat the No. 1 team one time, and that also Saskatchewan beat these guys last week, so they are beatable.
"At the same time they’ve been here many times before. They’re going to be very well prepared and we can’t be thinking about what we’ve done. We’ve got to be thinking about doing our thing, playing smart ball and team play," Morrison said.
What they can’t do, said guard Joseph Jones, is bask too much in the limelight of their come-from-behind win over Ottawa. They’ve got bigger and better things to accomplish this weekend.
"We’ve got three more games to take care of to get to that national championship," Jones said.
Friday’s game will be shown via webcast on the big screen at the Outpost. Tip-off is scheduled for 2:30 p.m.
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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