Warren Ward has at least two more university basketball games to play, including one Friday on the first anniversary of the surgery he underwent after tearing the ACL in the right knee. What the 23-year-old Ottawa Gee-Gees captain learned during his layoff went a long way toward his team being part of next weekend's OUA Final Four championship at Ryerson University's brand-spanking-new gym in the renovated Maple Leaf Gardens.
The young and talented Rams, whose star guards Aaron Best and Jahmal Jones are on the posters advertising the event, will be watching, if they can bear the sight of the Wilson Cup being decided on their floor. Fifth-ranked Ottawa's 74-70 OUA East semifinal win over No. 8 Ryerson was a reminder CIS hoops is a well-kept sports secret in the country. The NCAA is justifiably more popular, but its northern cousin deserves its niche. Take this game: a rematch from last season's playoffs involving a pair of top 10 teams which were well-aware the loser's season would be over, since the CIS Final 8's one and only wild-card spot is surely earmarked for either No. 2 Cape Breton or No. 3 Acadia? Yes, please. With Ward, who watched from the bench while awaiting knee surgery when Ryerson eliminated in Ottawa in 2012, playing his final home game? Even gooder.
Some game reports would play up the three-pointer with 50.5 seconds left by Ottawa's second-year guard Mike L'Africain that untied it for good. Another might lead with the Rams' killer mistake on their last meaningful possession, when forward Bjorn Michaelson travelled after Ottawa's Mehdi Tihani interjected himself into the only open passing lane.
The play that might have loomed largest came about 10 seconds earlier, with Ottawa ahead 69-68 and the shot clock expiring faster than the 50% off items at a deli counter. Ward got the ball at the top of the key with about four to shoot. Make something happen. A drive, a defender drawn out of the post and a dish to Gabriel Gonthier-Dubue later, Ottawa was back by up three and Montpetit Hall was a happier place to be.
"No, I probably would have shot it myself," Ward, who had 19 points and nine rebounds, acknowledged when asked what his pre-injury self would have done in the same circumstances. "It comes down to learning to play with my teammates. I trust them... trust my own people and be unselfish.
"That's really my personality, but I never learned how to do it until now," the 6-foot-5 forward added. "Not playing for a while helped me. When you have to watch, you can see what the game has to offer, see where you can make improvements. I spent last year watching a lot of film and reading."
That's where you see the value of CIS' five-year eligibility rule, maybe. Down south, a season-ending injury to a fourth-year player would bring the curtain down on someone's career.
"Two years ago, that's a charge or maybe a tough floater," Ottawa coach James Derouin concurred. "Instead he makes the right play and finds Gab for the basket."
"It's really symbolic of Warren's development," Derouin added. "He had 75 assists this year, he led our team in assists. He does have the ball in his hands quite a bit but that it 25, 30 per cent higher than his previous best."
Ward's savvy was one of those little things that brought it together for Ottawa, which is aiming to join No. 1-ranked Carleton at the CIS Final 8 at Scotiabank Place in two weeks. (The host Ravens are guaranteed a spot as the host team.) Ottawa and No. 6 Windsor will play in one semifinal on Friday, while defending national champion Carleton faces No. 9 Lakehead.
Ward, who's from London, Ont., has often left spectators breathless over his time in garnet and grey. Team success has been daunting. The Gee-Gees went out in the first round during his rookie year in 2009. The next two seasons each ended one win short of the Final 8 with losses to Lakehead. And he ripped up his knee in January 2012.
There was also the transition on the bench in 2010 from Dave DeAveiro (now at McGill) to Derouin. The former Gee-Gees captain who had been an assistant coach of DeAveiro's was a within-the-family hire. He seems to have implanted a chip on his team's collective shoulder ("although since we're fifth in the country, I'm not sure if I can keep doing that," he says). It is hard to imagine that Ottawa is the fifth-most athletic team in Canadian university hoops, but it is a tough out. Eight days ago, it forced Carleton to work triple overtime for a win.
"This team's toughness has been questioned, but I always tell them, 'being tough isn't about how much you bench press, it's about making tough plays,' " Derouin said. "That was Mike L'Africain making that [go-ahead] three-point shot. That was Johnny Berhanemeskel knocking down those two foul shots [with 6.8 seconds left to seal the victory]."
Championship at the renovated Maple Leaf Gardens
Canadian university basketball will have more TV exposure across the next three weekends than it has received in the previous seasons. The Score is covering the Mar. 1-2 OUA Final Four. It is also airing the Mar. 8-10 CIS Final 8 in Ottawa and the women's national championship game on Mar. 17.
Ryerson's presence in the OUA Final Four probably would have helped attendance. It would have been a crowning touch to the downtown Toronto university's first season at the Mattamy Athletic Centre. Under national team coach Roy Rana, Ryerson is enjoying a hoops renaissance. It earned its first Final 8 appearance in 13 seasons last winter.
Alas for Ryerson, its most seasoned big, 6-foot-9 Nem Stankovic, was out Saturday due to injury. Then the 6-7 Michaelson picked up his fourth foul 4:05 into the second half and had to sit for nearly 10 minutes. That left the Rams with no sufficient answer for Gonthier-Donge, who racked up a career-high 31 points on 12-of-15 shooting.
Ryerson largely contained Ward (8-for-21) and big-shooting guard Johnny Berhanemeskel (11 points on 2-for-8), thanks to the defence of guards Jordon Gauthier and Aaron Best. Yet Ottawa won by riding its third option.
The upshot for Rana's Rams is their core group of Best, Gauthier, Jones and Michaelson each have two more years of eligibility left.
"I don't see them doing anything but working hard and getting better and staying hungry," Rana said. "You have to earn it. Full credit to Ottawa, they deserved it."
"It would have been nice to have that chance to play in front of our fans, but it's going to be a good showcase for OUA and CIS basketball no matter what," Rana added. "There are four good teams going."
Including Ward and Ottawa, who might have been feeling overlooked of late. The Rams can consider the favour from last season returned. Those who made the time on Saturday for the semifinal showdown got to know a burgeoning Ryerson-Ottawa rivalry a little better.
"There's too much, too much, too much satisfaction," Ward said. "We had to fight for this one. I had to fight for this one. I have the utmost respect for those guys on Ryerson."
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.