ETOBICOKE – The 2021-22 edition of the Mount Saint Vincent University (MSVU) Mystics is another perfect example of “anything can happen in the postseason”.
MSVU’s run through the Atlantic Collegiate Athletic Association (ACAA) playoffs is one that should have grabbed headlines, or at the very least generated some chatter across the country. Had it happened south of the border, you wouldn’t be able to watch a sports network without hearing about it.
If you don’t believe me, just look at the coverage the Saint Peter’s Peacocks received when they advanced to the Sweet 16.
Instead, there was hardly a whisper anywhere aside from the East Coast on what the Mystics had achieved in their run to the ACAA Championship and a National Championship berth.
Now, the Mystics didn’t beat a ‘blue blood’ program like Kentucky to keep their season alive. But, they did beat the Holland College Hurricanes, a perennial powerhouse program on the East Coast, en route to the conference championship. In fact, the Mystics knocked off the top three teams from the regular season standings in the playoffs to win the ACAA Championship, and they did so on the road.
The Mystics entered the ACAA playoffs with a 4-8 record and were coming off a loss in their regular season finale to the UKC Blue Devils that put the Mystics on the wrong side of the tiebreaker for fifth spot. With their sixth place finish in the regular season standings, that meant they had to play in a play-in game against the UNBSJ Seawolves for the final playoff spot.
The Mystics got double-digit points from five different players, four of whom came off the bench, in their 99-64 win.
From there, the Mystics started on their uphill trek towards the ACAA Championship, and little did they know it at the time, but their win over UNBSJ was a thing to come.
The Mystics followed up their play-in win with a convincing 96-82 win over the defending ACAA champion Mount Allison Mounties on the road. All five starters for MSVU recorded double-digit points, once again showcasing a level of scoring depth that the program had been missing all season long.
From there, the Mystics would continue their winning ways, riding their wave of momentum that only grew with each passing game.
On the road again, the Mystics found a way to get past the top-seeded Holland Hurricanes, 91-83, behind another balanced scoring effort that saw four guys finish with at least 12 points. In the second half, the Mystics trailed for just 17 seconds, which happened early in the fourth quarter when the Hurricanes took a brief 68-66 lead.
With another upset win under their belts, the road warriors lived to fight another day. All that stood in their way of an ACAA Championship was a date with the second-seed St. Thomas Tommies, a program that had MSVU’s number during the regular season.
Again, anything can happen in the postseason. On March 13th in the ACAA Championship game, anything struck again.
Behind a trio of players in double-figures, and thanks to their scrappy defense, the Mystics were able to overcome some shooting woes on offense and complete their Cinderella run with a 69-67 win over the Tommies.
The win also brought the Mystics their first conference title in Men’s Basketball since the 2010-11 season.
“We really bought into the defensive end, and then moving the ball on offense,” said Head Coach Danny De Palma when asked what clicked down the stretch for the Mystics. “I think we have five different guys, even seven, who can score double figures which made us tough to scout and we had different guys have great performances for us over our run.”
Second year forward Jaxon Smith echoed similar sentiments.
“We’re a group of dogs,” added Smith, who is in his first season with the Mystics. “We love to get out there, play defense and play scrappy to make sure that we’re in every single game.”
Over the course of their postseason run, the Mystics had a different leading scorer in each game.
Gavin Trites had a team-high 18 points against the Seawolves.
Then, it was Tariq Thomas with 21 points against Mount Allison.
Dawson Berze-Butts had a 24-point, 10-rebound double-double against Holland College.
In the Championship Game against St. Thomas, Mo Abukar had a team-best 17 points off the bench.
The depth of the program was on full display throughout the ACAA playoffs. It was also something that took some time to sort itself out during the regular season. Only six players saw action in all 12 games in the regular season.
Trites played in 10 games. Abukar dressed for four. Even Berze-Butts himself missed three games. Spaulding, Smith, and Joel McCrossin were the only three players to start all 12 games.
“We definitely had a lot of adversity within the team itself this season,” said Berze-Butts. “Guys were in and out with injuries, that sort of thing, lots of new guys to the program, a new coach, all that sort of stuff.”
“I think that when it kind of came down to it, it was you can talk about it or you can be about it, and we decided to be about it and just get the job done.”
When push came to shove, the guys were ready to be about it.
“I think we just brought it together at the right time,” added Spaulding.
Sometimes, all it takes is bringing it together when you least expect it. One hot streak at the right time is the difference between an early postseason exit and a spot at the National Championship.
For the Mystics, everything clicking at the most opportune time has them on the biggest stage in Canadian collegiate basketball. Now, they find themselves gearing up for a quarter-final match-up at the 2022 CCAA Men’s Basketball National Championship.
The Mystics enter the tournament as the fourth seed in Pool A, and will take on the powerhouse VIU Mariners in the quarterfinals. The Mariners won the National Championship back in 2019, and they won the PACWEST Gold Medal this season after completing an undefeated regular season.
VIU is ranked #1 in the CCAA Men’s Basketball rankings.
Inside the locker room or in the stands, it’s no secret that the Mariners are the favourites against MSVU. However, the underdog role has fit the Mystics well to this point in the postseason, and they have no issue with the label.
“We know we’re the underdog, but we embrace it and we love that we’re the eighth seed,” added De Palma. “We kind of have that Nova Scotia obliviousness, like the moment’s not going to be too big for us.”
“The mentality is that we’re here to win games and we’re here to compete, not just participate.”
The Mystics will have their work cut out for them. While the Mariners feature just two players from their 2019 Championship team, they are two key pieces to the VIU puzzle. Fifth year forward Cameron Gay is one of three PACWEST First Team All-Stars on the VIU roster this season, and guard Akoi Yuot was named the CCAA Men’s Basketball Player of the Year after being named PACWEST Player of the Year.
VIU isn’t short on talent on both ends of the floor, and the Mystics know that. Still, the Mystics are focused on themselves, only worrying about playing their own game.
“We just have to play our game,” said Spaulding. “ I think if we come and play defense the way we can, the rest should take care of itself.”
Smith backed that up with words of his own.
“We want to go out there and impose ourselves every second of the game until the last buzzer goes so we’re always putting ourselves in a position to win,” added Smith.
It’s been quite the ride for the Mystics this season, the first with De Palma at the helm with games to be played, and one with a deeper story than what their regular season record would indicate on the surface.
The Mystics have rightfully earned their spot in the eight-team field despite what their regular season record might lead you to believe. They always believed in themselves, even when things weren’t going their way on the floor.
“I always thought we had enough talent to compete at Nationals,” concluded De Palma. “To finally get the opportunity is pretty special in year one and for our rookies, for our seniors, and even our transfers as well.”
MSVU has played the underdog role all postseason long, and they’ve played it well to this point. They have another tall order in front of them with the Mariners on the opposite side of the floor, but as we all know, anything can happen in the playoffs.
The clock hasn’t struck midnight yet on the Mystics’ Cinderella run, and they will be looking to enjoy it just a bit longer.
- T. Bennett