Checking in on the Defending National Champions Across Canada

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The 2017-18 season saw three teams secure their first national championship in school history on the hardwood. For the Humber Hawks, it marked their second title in three seasons in the CCAA. (Source: North Pole Hoops) (Header: U Sports)

SARNIA, Ontario — It was a year of firsts in 2017-18 in terms of national championship winners on the basketball court.

Three out of the four teams who cut down the nets in March did so for the first time in school history. The fourth team picked up their second national title in three seasons, and they extended their medal streak to three seasons in the process. All in all, it was a great end to what was a great season across both U Sports and the CCAA.

While three teams secured their first-ever championship, three of the four teams overall came from the province of Ontario. Both champions from the CCAA call the OCAA their home conference, as the Seneca Sting took home the Men’s Championship while the Humber Hawks secured yet another Women’s Championship after an undefeated season.

In U Sports action, a pair of first-time winners grabbed the headlines at season’s end. On the men’s side of things, the Calgary Dinos used a last-second bucket from Mambi Diawara to knock off the Ryerson Rams in Halifax to secure the national championship. On the women’s side, the Carleton Ravens rode a perfect season to their first Bronze Baby trophy.

All four teams came into the new year looking to defend their titles and keep them for at least one more season. For three of the teams, having a target on their backs as the defending national champions is a new scenario for them. So, how have the four teams fared through the first semester in 2018-19?

Let’s take a look.

OCAA Men’s Basketball – Seneca Sting

The start to the 2018-19 season has been an interesting one for the Seneca Sting. After their first national championship a season ago, the Sting look considerably different. While several players are back from last year’s team, they have taken on new roles with the program that some may not have seen coming. Still, they are near the top of the OCAA standings and will be right there come the playoffs.

Seneca went 19-1* in the regular season a year ago. Their lone loss came in the season opening game against the St. Lawrence Vikings, but it wasn’t due to their play on the court. The Sting were handed a loss due to an administrative error. They didn’t lose a game they played all season long, cruising to the CCAA Championship in March with a win over the Douglas College Royals.

This season, the Sting sit at 8-2 through the first semester. Both of their losses have come by 10 points or less. In just their second game of the season, the Sting fell victim to a buzzer-beater from the Centennial Colts on the road, losing 72-71. They rattled off six straight wins before falling to the Algonquin Thunder in their second-to-last game before the break, but they picked up a win over the La Cite Coyotes to cap off the first half on a high note with a boost of positive momentum.

Currently, the Sting sit in second place in the East Division, just a game behind the George Brown Huskies, a team that they have beat this season already (73-70).

Last season, Khalil Miller was one of the regulars in the starting five for the Sting. This season, he has come off the bench more times than he has started. Miller is averaging 8.1 points and 6.1 rebounds per game over 10 contests, two of which have been starts. Julio Vazquez leads the team with an average of 14.4 points per game despite averaging just 15.3 minutes over his seven appearances. The Sting only have one player who has started all 10 games this season, and that is Nabil Ibrahim (8.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg).

With new players in the mix and returning players in different roles, the Sting have to be pleased with their 8-2 start. With a win over the lone team above them in the divisional standings, the 11th ranked Sting have an added level of confidence heading into the second half of their title defense.

OCAA Women’s Basketball – Humber Hawks

Given the fact that the Hawks lost their top two scorers from last year’s team, one of which was the three-time CCAA Player of the Year, many would have expected the team to go through some growing pains in 2018-19. However, Humber is once again near the top of the OCAA standings, and they have a team that could contend for their second consecutive national championship.

In 2017-18, the Hawks rode a perfect record to their second CCAA Championship in three seasons. The win capped off remarkable careers for both Ceejay Nofuente and Aleena Domingo with the program. It ended a chapter that saw the Hawks earn three straight medals at the national championship tournament. Nofuente racked up three consecutive CCAA Player of the Year awards to end a stellar collegiate career.

Fast forward to the current season, and the Hawks have an 8-1 record to their name at the holiday break. After dropping their season-opening contest on the road against the Fanshawe Falcons, 79-51, the Hawks have rattled off eight straight wins to sit in third place in the West Division of the OCAA. Instead of missing a beat on offense after their departures, the Hawks have continued their dominance this season. Seven of their eight victories have come by at least 10 points, and their lone single-digit win came against the St. Clair Saints in their final game of the first semester, 89-83.

Humber has a new trio leading the way this season. Leticia Lopez has taken on a starring role with the program, averaging a team-best 17.6 points to go along with 6.2 rebounds, 4.0 assists, and 3.1 steals per contest. Lopez is a strong two-way player who can change the course of a game on both ends of the floor. Miea Campbell-Johnson has picked up where she left off last season, leading the team with 8.4 rebounds per game while adding 14.8 points and 1.8 blocks per contest. Rounding out the group is Jahnae Gyles, the third player on the Hawks to average double-digit points per game this season (14.2 ppg) while adding 5.7 points, 3.8 assists, and 2.7 steals.

While the Hawks look considerably different without Nofuente and Domingo from last year’s team, but they look as though they haven’t missed a beat. With the exception of a loss in their opener, the Hawks have looked like a top contender once again in 2018-19. The 10th ranked team in the CCAA rankings have the experience of winning a national championship under their belts, and when things get tough or their backs are against the wall, they can draw on that experience to help push them through.

Don’t be the least bit surprised if the Hawks are contending for both an OCAA Championship and CCAA Championship once again come February and March.

U Sports Men’s Basketball – Calgary Dinos

The Calgary Dinos didn’t enter the post-season as the top team in the Canada West Conference, but they made sure that they ended the season as the top team in all of Canada. When the post-season rolled around, the Dinos were 16-4 overall to sit third in the conference. After a run through the post-season, the Dinos were the second-seed in the U Sports Final Eight, and they rode their positive momentum to the school’s first-ever men’s basketball championship.

Calgary met Ryerson in the title game, and with under seven seconds to play and the score tied at 77-all, the Dinos turned to guard Mambi Diawara to get the job done. Out of a timeout, Calgary got the ball into the hands of Diawara, and he made it count. When the buzzer sounded, the Dinos were national champions thank to a 79-77 win over the Rams.

Now, in 2018-19, the Dinos have shown no signs of slowing down. In fact, they have shown that they will be an incredibly tough team to beat over the course of the season.

At the holiday break, the Dinos sit atop the Canada West Conference with a perfect 12-0 record. They have benefited from a home-heavy schedule in the first semester, as seven of their 12 games came inside the Jack Simpson Gymnasium. They are six points clear of the second-place UBC Thunderbirds, but the Thunderbirds have two games in-hand over the Dinos. Calgary ranks 3rd in the U Sports Top 10 rankings, while UBC is nipping at their heels in the 4th spot.

Five of the Dinos’ eight games in the second half are on the road, and all five of those games come in the month of January.

Experience wins in college basketball, and Calgary has that in spades. All five of the Dinos’ top scorers this season are either juniors (one) or seniors (four). Once again, Diawara leads the way for the Dinos, averaging 20.2 points per game to lead the team and rank third in the conference. Add in his 7.0 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 2.0 steals per game, and he is a front-runner for Canada West Player of the Year. Forward Brett Layton has enjoyed a breakout season, averaging 16.3 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per contest. Point guard David Kapinga has been rock solid on the back-end, averaging 13.2 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 3.9 assists per game.

Nobody has been able to stop the Dinos through the first semester, and they have been able to build up a ton of positive momentum that they will look to carry into the second half as they look to defend their national championship. Given their level of experience, the argument could be made that they have the best chance to repeat as champions out of the four defending champions.

U Sports Women’s Basketball – Carleton Ravens

For years, the attention at Carleton surrounded the men’s basketball team. Their seven-year title reign came to an end last season, but the women’s basketball team may have started a streak of their own. The veteran-heavy Ravens didn’t lose a single game last season, and they relied on their defense in the U Sports National Championships to win their first-ever Bronze Baby trophy.

Across the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, the Ravens dropped just one regular season game. Maintaining that level of success is hard for any team to do, regardless of the sport, and while the Ravens have taken a small step backwards in terms of regular season success in 2018-19, they are still one of the top teams in Canada.

At the holiday break, the Ravens have a record of 8-2 to their name. Their two losses, both of which have come against top 10 teams in the U Sports rankings, have eclipsed their combined total from the two previous regular seasons. Still, the 7th ranked Ravens have played some strong basketball to date, and they can thank their defense once again. Through 10 games, the Ravens have held their opponents to 52.4 points per game and 22.0% shooting from three-point range.

Led by three players in double figures, the future looks bright for the Ravens after losing key veterans from last year’s team. Alyssa Cerino is the team’s top scorer with an average of 13.1 points per contest on 41.7% shooting from the floor. Madison Reid is having herself a strong 2018-19 season, averaging 12.4 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 2.7 assists per game. Rounding out the trio of players in double-figures is Nicole Gilmore. She is averaging 10.7 points while leading the team with 7.7 rebounds and 2.1 steals per contest.

All streaks have to start with one, and now that the Ravens have their first national championship under their belts, they will be looking to make their own streak and establish themselves as a perennial powerhouse in the OUA and U Sports alike. The top of the OUA is packed with talent, and teams like the Lakehead Thunderwolves, McMaster Marauders, Ottawa Gee-Gees, and Ryerson won’t make things easy for the Ravens come post-season time.

 – T. Bennett

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