The first-round curse is over.
The Lakehead Thunderwolves, making their fourth straight trip to the CIS Final 8 men’s basketball championship, on Friday finally escaped the opening round, pulling away in the fourth quarter to score a 74-61 win over the No. 2 seed Cape Breton Capers at Ottawa’s Scotiabank Place.
Ben Johnson lit up the Capers defence, hitting 7-of-10 three-pointers in a 25-point performance, 21 more than he combined to collect in his previous two quarterfinal matches in 2011 and 2012.
Johnson took care of the offence and hometown boy Greg Carter took care of the defence, all but shutting down AUS MVP Jimmy Dorsey, held to just a dozen points, all in the second half.
“I think that was the one,” said Johnson, who showed early on he’d come to play, burying a pair from long distance as Lakehead opened a quick 11-4 lead.
“It felt good.”
It also felt pressure-free.
“We’ve been here before, we’ve been in the first round and we let the jitters get the best of us the last few years and we just went in and played our game plan.”
With a bronze-medal match guaranteed and gold in their sights, Johnson said that one win has made all the hard work worth it.
“It paid off,” he said.
Lakehead coach Scott Morrison was thinking about his six seniors in the immediate aftermath of the historic win.
“They’ve brought this program to the top of the country. They should go down as one of the best programs in Ontario history never to win a national championship at this point,” Morrison said. “I didn’t want them to retire with that kind of monkey on their back, of never getting out of this first round, with four chances.
“I’m most happy right now for those guys. Now they can relax and go about trying to get a couple more upsets this weekend.”
The challenge to stop Dorsey was personal, Carter said, a horde of friends and family watching in the stands.
“He’s all-Canadian and I’m the defensive player of the year, so I took that match-up pretty personal. He’s a talented player. I tried to stay with him. I guess I came out on top today.”
Dorsey, the second-leading scorer in the AUS this season, was taken out of the Capers game-plan early, banished to the bench early in the second with three fouls.
Lakehead took a 15-12 lead into the second, but with his starters on the bench, Morrison’s troops began to give up ground.
Sean McCormick nailed a three early in the second, the tail end of a 7-0 run, and the Capers took a 21-16 lead.
They were out in front by as much as seven, but Joe Hart, who finished with 11, dropped one from beyond the arc and Dwayne Harvey went coast to coast to make it 33-29 at the half.
The Cape Breton lead evaporated in just two Lakehead possessions to start the third, Carter scooping one in and taking a dish from Harvey for the equalizer.
The two teams battled back and forth in the third, finishing the quarter knotted 48-48.
But it was all Lakehead in the fourth.
Carter hit a circus-like shot that gave LU the lead for good, then it was a steady diet of downtown looks, Hart hitting another trey to stretch the lead to seven, then Johnson put it out of reach with another three, Lakehead going up 69-56.
Cape Breton pulled to within eight, but forced to foul, could only watch the Thunderwolves pull away.
“The last three years we were kind of scared coming into this first game,” Carter said. “We just took it possession by possession and took advantage of our strengths and weaknesses on the court.”
The Wolves will play Ottawa in Saturday's semifinal at 5:30 p.m. The contest will be televised on the Score. No. 3 Otawa earned the semifinal berth with a 82-70 win over No. 6 McGill.
Beyond the arc: Dwayne Harvey had 16 points and eight assists, to go with four steals. Joey Nitychoruk led Lakehead with nine rebounds, including five on the offensive glass ... The Thunderwolves out-rebounded Cape Breton 47-33 ... Cape Breton only went to the line once in the first half.