By Lethbridge Herald on February 17, 2017.
Having lost four starters from the previous year, including their two leading scorers and a first-team all star, the general consensus heading into the 2016-17 Canada West basketball season was the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns men were destined to be a middle-of-the-pack team.
Somewhere over the course of the season, someone forgot to tell the Pronghorns as the team now gets ready to host its first post-season games since 2001.
That will start tonight at 7 p.m. at the 1st Choice Savings Centre as the Pronghorns face the Victoria Vikes in Game 1 of the teams’ best-of-three Canada West play-in series.
“To be picked to finish ninth and the expectation that we’d be a middle-of-the-pack team, to have six true freshmen on this team and nine new guys, it’s a really testament to them on how they’ve come together as a team and how they play for each other,” said Pronghorns head coach Mike Hansen, whose team went 13-7 in the regular season, wrapping up their regular season last weekend with a thrilling 96-94 double overtime win over the Alberta Golden Bears in Edmonton.
“I’ve told them that when they play well it’s when they have that humility and our celebrating each other’s successes,” said Hansen. “They’re not worried with how they’re playing individually, but they can celebrate when their teammates are having a great game. And you see it. You see how infectious that positive energy is. This team, that’s one thing I’ve noticed, they have that characteristic where they play for each other and I think that’s a big reason behind our success.”
That success has earned the Pronghorns their first playoff home game since 2001.
“It feels awesome,” said Pronghorns third-year guard Zac Overwater. “We’re proud to be the first team in 16 years. It’s definitely a good opportunity to get a good crowd out and get the community out and show them what a good program we’ve got here.”
When others were pegging the Pronghorns to finish lower in the overall standings, Hansen wasn’t sure how his team was going to shape up at the beginning of the season.
“When people asked me early on how the team was going to be, I was really honest, I had no idea. When you have this many new pieces, I knew we had talent on paper, but what I didn’t know was how it was going to fit together. To go 13-7 for only the sixth time in our school’s history, we’ve done that. And to be able to host a first-round playoff game, I just can’t say how proud I am of these guys for the effort and the time they’ve put in.
“It’s not because we have an immense amount of talent, it’s because we have in incredibly dedicated and committed group of guys who have put in all the extra work they’ve needed to.”
Overwater agreed the team’s potential wasn’t immediately obvious at the beginning with the abundance of new faces.
“But once we started playing together and getting going I definitely thought we could do something special,” said the product of the LCI Rams who averaged 11.6 points-per-game. “We have lots of talent and we’re a decently deep team this year. After the first couple of weeks (we felt) we could do something special this year.”
The last time the Pronghorns hosted a playoff series was the Canada West quarter-finals against the UBC Thunderbirds. The Pronghorns won that series in three games.
The Horns now look for a repeat performance tonight with Game 2 slated for Saturday night at 7 p.m.
“We’ve had a couple good crowds this year, but I don’t think it’ll be like anything we’re going to have tomorrow,” said Overwater “It’s exciting.”
The Pronghorns swept Vikes 2-0 in their season series, downing the Vikes 76-58 and 94-81 Jan. 20-21 in Victoria.
Victoria is led by fifth-year guard Grant Sitton, who finished third in Canada West scoring this season, averaging 19.3 points per game. He also averaged 6.8 rebounds per game.
The Pronghorns reply with point guard Dejon Burdeaux, who led the country in steals with 65 and free throw percentage at 89.6 per cent.
He was also third in Canada West in assists per game with 4.5 and finished 12th on the conference’s scoring list, averaging 17.1 points per game.
Elliot Sentance led the Pronghorns in scoring throughout this season and averaged 17.6 points per game.
“Whenever you have a fifth-year as talented as Grant Sitton, you can be in any ball game,” said Hansen. “Grant willed them to two wins last weekend to qualify for the playoffs. He’s an incredibly talented and hard-working young man. They have some really good pieces around them.”
“They’re a good team, we can’t take them lightly,” added Overwater. “They fought us hard the two times we went out there. They’re well-coached and they have a good fifth-year who’s a really strong player. We’re going to have to focus on shutting him down and their rookie point guard who can shoot the ball. If we do that, I think we have a good shot.”
Tickets for tonight’s game are $12 for adults, $9 for seniors, $7 for youth 6-17, $3 for U of L students and free for kids five-and-under
All Sport, HERD, and Jr. Horns pass holders get in free with their card.
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