Award-winning Tommies fall in nailbiter ACAA final

The St. Thomas Tommies are seen playing against Mount Saint Vincent University at the Lady Beaverbrook Gym in this archive photo. (Aaron Sousa/AQ)

A crowd filled the Lady Beaverbrook Gym last Sunday as the St. Thomas University Tommies men’s basketball team hosted the Mount Saint Vincent Mystics in the Atlantic Collegiate Athletic Association championship game with a trip to Ontario for nationals on the line.

MSVU upset the ACAA’s top-seeded Holland College Hurricanes in the semifinal just two days earlier, meaning STU would play the final in their home gym.

“The whole thing kind of seemed like a Cinderella story,” said Gayo Isaya, a second-year guard who brought home ACAA defensive player of the year and first-team all-star honours this season. 

After several early turnovers from both sides, Tommies senior Geoffrey Lavoie kicked off the scoring with a three-pointer. Isaya exploded for eight points in the first quarter, personally outscoring the Mystics in the frame. Ted Braden had two emphatic blocks in the first quarter to anchor the stifling STU defense. STU led 17-7 after the first.

In the second quarter, MSVU clawed back as Dawson Burzee-Butts proved to be a steady presence for the Mystics. By halftime, a mere five points separated the Tommies from the Mystics as STU led 33-28.

Even during timeouts and pauses in play, the crowd at the Lady Beaverbrook Gym cheered loudly, tooting horns and ringing bells. STU head coach John Hickey said his team prepared for the deafening crowd by signalling and huddling often.

“[The fans] really brought it,” said Isaya. “It was electrifying.”

STU struggled to prevent MSVU’s penetration in the second quarter. This prompted Tommies head coach John Hickey to exclaim, “play basketball! It’s too easy,” loud enough for the whole Pit to hear after one of six Mystics’ layups in the quarter.

Both teams looked stoic coming out of the locker room for the second half. Isaya brought a steal and slam dunk to put the Tommies up 35-28. It would be their largest lead for the rest of the game.

The tide turned midway through the third quarter as Mystics guard Will Spaulding took over the game. He finished the game with 16 points and 11 rebounds. After the third, the Tommies still led by three.

The fourth quarter began as the first did, with sloppy turnovers and misses both ways. MSVU took their first lead of the game with 7:37 remaining on a Mo Abukar layup and never looked back. Abukar picked up where his backcourt mate Spaulding left off, scoring eight in the quarter, including a personal 6-1 run.

The Tommies wouldn’t go away though. Isaya denied Abukar at the rim and hit a layup of his own. Rookie forward Owen Amos played valuable minutes in the second half, blocking a shot and scoring ten points.

Almin Dervisevic was fouled on a driving layup attempt with just over one minute on the clock and knocked down a free throw to tie the game at 63. Spaulding then went 4-4 from the charity stripe before Hickey called a timeout with 19.1 seconds left, down by three.

After the timeout, Evan Valanne – in the game for the fouled out Dervisevic – inbounded the ball to Lavoie. Lyttleton came off a double elevated screen and rose up to drain a three-pointer with a defender draped over him. Tie ball game.

“Vince has been that guy for us all year, making tough shots, clutch shots too,” said Isaya. “When he hit that shot, to be honest with you, I wasn’t really surprised. That’s what he does.”

Following a Mystics timeout, Burzee-Butts got the ball in the post and backed down two Tommies defenders to score inside for what would be the winning basket. The Tommies weren’t able to make a shot as time expired, delivering MSVU the ACAA banner.

“The outcome is what’s frustrating for us. And obviously, we’ve met as coaches and we’ll change some things in our process moving forward, but we’re proud of our guys,” said Tommies head coach John Hickey after the loss.

After leading STU to a 9-3 conference record, Hickey was named ACAA coach of the year.

“That’s not a reflection of me. That’s a reflection of our players and the amount of time that our coaches put in with those players, because it’s unparalleled,” Hickey said. “I’ve learned for sure that we can compete with anybody in the country because our guys have. They’re absolutely willing to put the time in.”

Hickey wouldn’t speculate on if graduating players Lavoie and Dervisevic would return next season for a fifth year of ACAA eligibility, or on any potential recruits for next season. But he says the team is hungry and ready to compete for a long-awaited ACAA – and maybe national – championship.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll be back competing for another conference championship next year,” said Isaya.