Stills of the 2022/2023 ACAA-AASCC Basketball championship held this weekend March 3 to 5, 2023. showing the game between The Crandall Chargers and the UKC Blue Devils. (Daniel Salas/AQ)

St. Thomas University hosted the Atlantic Collegiate Athletic Association (ACAA) men’s and women’s basketball championships on the weekend, which saw the Tommies fall short of their hopes for a national championship. 

The women’s team went down swinging in a defensively battled semi-final with the number one team in the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA), the Mount Allison Mounties. The Tommies were down by as much as 12 points in the first half but fought their way back into the game late in the fourth quarter.

Large crowds filled the Lady Beaverbrook Gym, which helped charge an aggressive Tommies defence and forced 26 turnovers in the game. The Tommies weren’t taking any prisoners on defence, diving and reaching for the ball every chance they got. Tommies senior guard and ACAA defensive player of the year Vanessa Soffee hit the floor multiple times on her way to four steals and six rebounds.

“It takes an entire team to defend and to hold that team to 51 points, it’s a hell of an effort. It’s a tough loss for the girls, but they did a lot of great things,” said women’s head coach Fred Conners.

Fellow Tommies senior Emily Owens led the second-half charge, coming off the bench with a game high 15 points and a perfect three-for-three from three-point range. In her final game with the Tommies, she put the team on her back late, scoring the team’s last eight points, including back-to-back free throws to tie the game with a minute left.

“We shoot so many free throws in practice that I kind of knew I was going to make them … I felt prepared and I felt ready. I knew that my team needed those,” said Owens.

The Mounties would get the last possession and take the lead with six seconds left, sending them to the ACAA final.

“At the end of the day, they had the last possession, they made a nice play and they’re the number one team in the country for a reason, but I was really proud of the girls for how hard they worked,” said Conners.

The men’s team made it one step further: as the number one team in the ACAA, they won big against the Mount Allison Mounties 94-57 in the semi-finals on Saturday night.

The Tommies opened up the game with a 16-0 run that included four three-pointers.

Tre Campbell and Tanner Hoyt led the way from the three-point line, scoring nine of the Tommies’ 16 three-points and a combined 39 points.

Tommies ACAA men’s coach of the year John Hickey was impressed with his team’s shot selection and their ability to make shots throughout the game.

“It’s just taking team-first shots. That’s really all we talked about; making sure the shot you take is good for the team,” said Hickey.

STU’s Gayo Isaya put the cherry on top at the end of the second quarter when he climbed the ladder to dunk on a nearly seven foot tall Mounties forward, a move that sent shock waves throughout the  packed gymnasium.

“I had the lane, and I just got up so high I had to dunk it,” said Isaya.

Isaya, the ACAA’s defensive player of the year, enjoyed his team’s moment but was concentrated with refocusing their energy towards their finals opponent, the second-seed Holland College Hurricanes.

“The shots went in today; we have to be ready to adjust tomorrow if the shots don’t go in,” he said.

The men’s team had their work cut out for them, as the Tommies eventually fell to the Hurricanes in the finals on March 5, 97-78, despite leading by 12 points in the first half. 

The Hurricanes tied the game up at 43 a-piece going into halftime and never looked back.

Holland came out of halftime with a burst of momentum, scoring 38 points in the third quarter. Hurricanes guard and ACAA rookie of the year Kyree Thompson had a game high of 27 points. The first-year guard is part of a one-two punch backcourt, which included ACAA first team all-conference, Jalen Menzies, who added 14 points of his own.

“We weren’t great in the third quarter, they made a lot of shots … they made plays in that third quarter, and we didn’t,” said Hickey.

The Hurricanes went into the final quarter with an overwhelming 20-point lead over the Tommies, and they ended the tournament by punching their tickets to the CCAA finals in Calgary, Alta., later this month.

“I don’t know if it was about what we didn’t do or more about what they did, [but]They were better than us,” said Hickey.

As the popcorn was swept away, and the gym cleared of its once-rowdy and  enthused fans, the ACAA basketball finals wrapped up, and so did STU Athletics for the school year. The Tommies now set their sights on making a triumphant return in 2023-24.