The Lambton College Men's Basketball Team found themselves back at the OCAA Championship for the third time in four years as the 2018 version of the event tipped off at Niagara College this past week.
It was a meaningful accomplishment to advance to the provincial finals for the squad who, after a 7-17 rebuild the year prior, retooled again in hopes of figuring out a winning formula.
"We had a big turnover with twelve players graduating after the OCAA bronze medal win in 2016," says Coach Grant. "We brought in a new group for the 2016-17 season and things didn't click. We had some injuries to contend with early on and just didn't get firing, so, we went back to the drawing board and brought in a brand new group this season with the hopes of moving in a positive direction."
Jason Marshell and Branden Padgett were the two holdovers from the 2016 squad returning for 2017-18 and would be entering their final year. Outside of those two veterans the Lions did still have 6'6 Motown forward Xavian Edwards and a half-a-year worth of experience from 6'2 guard Tanoundy Sylla of Ottawa. That is where things ended for veteran presense before tip-off this season. In came the freshmen.
Once the dust settled on the recruiting season the Lions were to hit the court at the Vikings Invitiational in Kingston with the aforementioned group of vets, a third-year transfer from Michigan in 6'7 forward Jason Watts and a contingent of eleven athletic freshmen from various parts of the province.
"We really liked the student-athletes that chose to come here," remembers Grant. "They were great kids and super fun to work with on the court as they all had such high ceilings. We knew we were going to be better but we weren't sure where that would take us."
The freshman contingent was made up Keith Laryea (Rexdale, ON), Jaquan Barrett-Smith (Mississauga, ON), Dwayne Lambert-Cadore (Etobicoke, ON), Tyvel Peters (Toronto, ON), Trent Sinden (Tillsonburg, ON), Tyler Grevers (Woodstock, ON), Noah Ashame and Bruno Pande who were both from London as well as a trio of players -- Journee Joseph, Shakur Seymour, and Efosa Osaghae -- from Brampton.
But, as with injuries in 2016-17, there wasn't going to be an easy path to victories for the current group. In late summer, a rainstorm caused a leak in the gymnasium on campus which would lead to the complete replacement of the existing gym floor. The Lions wouldn't have a home for two months which was to include their first two OCAA home games being played off-site in a high school gym. Between the St. Patrick's High School, Northern Collegiate, and the YMCA, the Lions were able to get off to a 7-4 overall and 1-1 conference start despite not practicing in a College gymnasium. It was a good sign. Adversity seemed to bring the young group together.
As the season got back to normal the Lions were able to find their groove with road wins over Niagara and Mohawk and a pair of good home wins over Conestoga and St. Clair. The first semester wrapped up with a solid 6-4 record in OCAA league play. The team kept improving and by the end of January had swept a crucial season series with Mohawk while defeating Humber on the road for the first time in program history. They would win their way through a two game trip up north to the Sault before another hard fought victory in Kitchener solidified a Lions return to post-season play for the fourth time in five years.
As the schedule would dictate, the Lions faced an end of the regular season against their two Southwestern Ontario rivals with Fanshawe coming to Sarnia on February 17th and a trip to the hostile confines of St. Clair College on the 21st. The Lions had been beaten handily in London earlier in the season but showed some grit in closing the current facility with a 76-72 victory over the Falcons. The trip to Windsor proved to be just as much of a dogfight but the young Lions again prevailed with an 85-83 win, securing a matchup against the much preferred Centennial Colts in the first round of the OCAA playoffs.
Lambton had travelled to Centennial before. In 2015, a relatively unknown Lions team made their way to Scarborough and dispatched of the Colts 97-70 to advance to the OCAA Championship for the first time in the modern two-division East-West system. That marked the first ever playoff win for the College. The majority of this year's group was looking for their first playoff win as well.
The Colts and Lions tipped off on February 25th with a trip to the Championship on the line and Lambton jumped out to a 15 point head at the half. But, as the third quarter got underway, Jason Watts, who averaged 17 points and north of nine rebounds a game, was straight ejected by an official from Hamilton. Centennial would close the gap to two with Watts out and Branden Padgett on the bench for over 10 minutes in foul trouble. Queue the freshmen.
The Lions rolled out the youngsters in response to adversity. They came together again and didn't disappoint as they went on a run in the second half that put the game away as Lambton cruised to an 83-74 win.
At the Championship, the team went 1-2 as they lost to Canadian #4 ranked Redeemer in the opening round before defeating Canadian #7 George Brown and falling 89-83 to a physically imposing Niagara side.
Padgett was named an OCAA First-Team All-Star and Laryea was named to the OCAA All-Rookie Team.
Padgett and Marshell will both graduate as being two of the five Lions ever to score 1,000 career points. They will also be remembered for their efforts in helping bring 12 new Lions the experience of playing in the OCAA Championship. That experience will be vitally important as the program moves ahead.
The Lions finish the season 21-12 overall which is the second best showing in College history. Next up for the team is a May match-up against the United States Naval Academy in Toronto.
The program now moves on to a whole new core of players. They've already shown the ability to handle adversity. They should be fun to watch as it comes their way next season.