Channeling the hurt of playoff exits past into hunger, Khalid Abdel-Gabar and the Windsor Lancers took down another higher-ranked team on its own floor by beating the host Ottawa Gee-Gees 85-80 on Friday at the OUA Final Four.
To think, Windsor, which is off to its first CIS Final 8 in five seasons, was perceived as a retooling team after losing three stars off a 2013-14 team that came up one win shy of going to nationals. However, on Friday, it took Ottawa out of its rhythm with quick switches on defence and shot the lights out over the final 20 minutes.
"This was our second chance, pretty much," said Abdel-Gabar, the fifth-year guard who hooped 19 points on 7-of-11 from the floor, with 6-foot-2 guard Alex Campbell getting a game-high 20 while Mitch Farrell played through an ankle injury to score 16. "We finally did it. We got together, we were going after the loose balls, going after the rebounds.
"In our eyes, we believe we're a No. 1 team even though we lost to Ottawa earlier this season," added Abdel-Gabar, whose No. 5-ranked team got into the Final Four by beating No. 4 McMaster last Saturday. "Rankings are just rankings. We came in this game knowing we were the better team. We dug deep and stuck together.
"I know we had our big three [Lien Phillip, Enrico DiLoreto and Josh Collins] last year. Once they all left, everyone pretty much assumed we were a rebuilding team. The guys that were still on the team, we knew we weren't in a rebuilding phase. We knew we had guys who could step up and fill those roles."
Coming off his team's biggest win in five seasons, coach Chris Oliver didn't even attempt to take credit for the Lancers shooting an effective 63.3 per cent (17-of-30 with four triples) in the third and fourth quarters. To do so in a high-paced game was simply phenomenal.
"I wish I knew the answer to that every day," said Oliver, whose team will play in Saturday's Wilson Cup (8 p.m. ET, Rogers Television/OUA.tv) against the winner of the late Carleton-Ryerson semifinal. "We really emphasized confidence, in terms of them having the freedom to make plays and shoot. Sometimes they take some shots that, as a fundamentals coach, I'm not so sure about. The freedom and confidence showed. Ultimately, we had to outscore them and we did."
Ottawa shooting guard Johnny Berhanemeskel, the OUA nominee for national player of the year, had 19 points on 8-of-16 shooting, but scored only two in the fourth quarter. Small forward Caleb Agada added 15 in 22 foul-restricted minutes. Meantime, the Lancers simply executed better down the stretch. Farrell came out after aggravating an ankle injury, but returned to hit a go-ahead layup during an 8-0 run and also hit a dagger three in the final 90 seconds.
"Maybe just being at home and everything around the game [the playoff atmosphere], maybe that just threw us off our rhythm, but there's no excuse for our guys," said Ottawa coach James Derouin, whose team lost to a CIS opponent other than Carleton for the first time since the 2013 national semifinal against Lakehead. "We just didn't show up tonight and Windsor outperformed us."
Ottawa ascended to the No. 1 ranking after beating Carleton in the first week of January, but the Ravens took it back with a 13-point decision in the Capital Hoops Classic on Feb. 6. The Gee-Gees have had trouble regaining their form defensively ever since; as a case in point, they allowed 81 points in a late regular-season game against a Queen's team that missed the playoffs.
"Sometimes you just got take a loss and suck it up," Berhanemeskel said. "We're still blessed to get another opportunity [Saturday in the bronze-medal game]. We've got to wake up. We are going to have to regroup. Every championship team will have its ups and downs. Our season went pretty smooth. Sometimes you need something to wake you up and that definitely happened today."
The result certainly throws the Final 8 picture into flux. With the unranked Atlantic and Quebec champions, by rule, guaranteed the No. 5 and 6 seeds, a very good OUA team is likely to get an unfavourable seeding. Yet the the CIS seeding criteria states that playoff results should take precedence and Windsor now has a win over Ottawa, along with its Jan. 23 home win over Carleton.
"We've been a top 10 team, we've done all that stuff," Oliver said. "But over the last five years we have not back to nationals. We're excited.
"I can't think of a better Final Four before, at any level," he added. "You have to earn it."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.