Carleton guard Clinton Springer-Williams drives on Ottawa's Johnny Berhanemeskel at the OUA Wilson Cup on Saturday …TORONTO — First the Carleton Ravens and Ottawa Gee-Gees played a five-point game, then four, now three in the OUA Wilson Cup on Saturday.
Now the cross-town rivals wait and see if they could be the final two standing in Canadian university basketball next weekend when the national championship is decided in their backyard. That scenario never came to pass when the CIS Final 8 was held at Scotiabank Place from 2008 to '10. Ottawa lost in the first round during its only tournament appearance over that stretch.
University hoops diehards across Canada might chafe at the notion of an all-Ottawa national final. However, Ottawa, which never shies away rolling its boulder up Mount Smart across town at Carleton, rates the chance. Other teams tighten up like an overworked calf muscle against the Ravens. Even with their Final 8 ticket in hand in front of a crowd of just fewer than 1,000 at Mattamy Athletic Centre, Ottawa went down fighting on Saturday before Carleton got out with a 72-69 win. It took some close defence by game MVP Thomas Scrubb (17 points, nine rebounds) on Gee-Gees star Warren Ward (27 and 10 despite being limited to 30 minutes by early foul trouble) to prevent a tying three-pointer at the buzzer. If Ward's last shot had dropped, they might still be playing.
"They’re a really tough matchup every time we play them," said Carleton coach Dave Smart, whose No. 1-ranked Ravens are looking for its record ninth CIS title next weekend. "They pose a lot of problems for us. If we get the opportunity to play them again, it’s going to be tough to beat ’em four times.
"I think it [both Ottawa teams being high seeds] is really going to help the attendance at the tournament, the excitement around the tournament. I think Ottawa’s got to be a team that people consider a top-three team."
Not to exert any pressure of the seeding committee — it's a tough and thankless job — but this is something that can extend university basketball beyond its normal cozy niche. Their third meeting of season Saturda wasn't as riveting as their triple-overtime regular-season game two weeks ago, but it affirmed how they are close in quality for the first time since they were ranked 1-2 in Canada in 2009.
Carleton has scrapped through by five, four and three points against Ottawa, while accruing a 30.2-point winning margin against the rest of CIS. All of their other 'within the CIS' wins have been by double digits.
The Gee-Gees have not lost to anyone by more than five since the New Year while playing in the country's toughest division.
"Unfortunately the seeding is not always a ranking," Gee-Gees coach James Derouin said when asked if Ottawa deserves a shot to face Carleton in the final. "Tournament draws and matchups are often taken into consideration. From a ranking standpoint, you'd like to think we held on to our third spot. From a seeding standpoint, I'll make the case right now that I'd love to see a Carleton-Ottawa final in Ottawa. If it lines up that way, from a tournament standpoint, why wouldn't you do that? Sell out the arena. It'd be wild in there.
"But like I said [Friday], the four times Ottawa been to nationals when Carleton's been there, they've put us in the same side of the draw four out of four times. To be honest with you, I'm expecting the same to happen."
Essentially, the CIS Final 8 field is set. Second-ranked Cape Breton and No. 5 Acadia meet in the Atlantic conference final on Sunday in Halifax, but in all likelihood the loser will be the wild-card team. McGill, guided by former Ottawa coach Dave DeAveiro, won the Quebec title 77-74 over Bishop's on Saturday. Lakehead is the OUA's third representative, while No. 4 UBC and No. 8 Victoria have emerged out of Canada West.
Carleton will go in as an odds-on favourite to cut down the nets. But the way they haven't been able to vanquish Ottawa can be taken as a harbinger. Or at least as a teachable moment.
"There's still lots to work on, we’ve got to be at our best for nationals next weekend," said fourth-year forward Tyson Hinz, who had eight rebounds Saturday as the Ravens ruled the boards, nabbing 17 off the offensive glass. "That’s two times we’ve played them where we haven’t executed in the last few minutes, that’s something we have to work on. This game was good because it really points out your flaws when you get that experience in a close game.
"They’re a good team. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see them again."
If that doesn't happen, well, c'est la vie. Ottawa has fallen one win short of the Final 8 in three of the past five years. It lost handily in the quarter-final in its last trip in 2009 under DeAveiro. The juxtaposition that weekend was weird: Ottawa won the fifth-place game (since discontinued) while Carleton won it all. Getting back on the map nationally, not that they ever really went anywhere, is its own reward.
"We're going to be in front of family, friends, high school teachers, coaches, we know we can do it," said guard and Ottawa native Johnny Berhanemeskel, who noted the prospect of having long-time acquaintances aligned with the Ravens will just be that much more enlivening.
"That's their choice," he said moments after getting a see-you-soon handshake from Smart in the arena hallway. "They're going to be there and that's going to make it more fun."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.