Winning a championship is tough. Winning two in a row is even tougher. But the SAIT Trojans (19-5) weren't deterred by the challenge as the club came up clutch to win its second ACAC men's basketball championship in as many years, with an 88-77 win over the Lakeland Rustlers (18-9). The victory marked the end of an entertaining week of basketball at the Cora Breakfast and Lunch ACAC Championship Tournament, hosted by Lethbridge College.
Both teams were making shots in the opening quarter, with neither side able to put any distance between themselves and their opponent. SAIT was able to take a slight 26-24 lead after ten minutes thanks to a 10-point effort by Gemie Muya-Ntalaja (first year, Journalism, Toronto). The teams remained even through most of the second quarter, as the game was tied at 38 with just over two minutes remaining. But Lakeland Prentice Gardner (fourth year, University Transfer, Oakland, Calif.) single-handedly broke the game open, scoring seven-straight points, including a last-second three, to give the Rustlers a 45-38 lead at the break.
Three minutes into the third quarter, Akeem Phillip (third year, Business Administration, Toronto) hit a three, pushing the Rustlers lead to 10 points. But from there, the Trojans erupted. SAIT scored 16 straight points, six of them by Muya-Ntalaja to storm ahead 57-51 late in the third. A three-pointer in the final minute by Murphy Beya (fifth year, New Media Design and Production, Ottawa) cemented an excellent quarter for the Trojans where they outscored the Rustlers 25-12 to lead by six after three.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Rustlers put on a comeback push as a Terrell Murdaugh (fourth year, University Transfer, Saskatoon) three moved Lakeland back within two of the Trojans. But that's as close as the crew from Lloydminster would get, as Charlie Conner (first year, Business Administration, Lacey, Wash.) scored five-straight points to restore the SAIT edge. Beya, the tournament MVP added the exclamation point, drilling a three with one minute remaining to clinch the Trojans victory.
Conner, a freshman, led the Trojans in scoring with 33 points, while Muya-Ntalaja finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds. Adrian Richards led the Rustlers with 20 points.
The championship exemplifies the return to prominence of the Trojans basketball program, after it ended a 17-year championship drought last season.
Both teams have qualified for, and now move on to, the CCAA National Championship Tournament from March 15 to 17 at Collège Montmorency in Laval, Que.
Players of the game: Lakeland - #2 Prentice Gardner (17pts, 4reb) SAIT - #1 Charlie Conner (33pts, 7reb, 5ast, 4 3pts)
Tournament MVP Murphy Beya – SAIT Trojans
All-tournament team Brett Jakubec – Concordia Thunder Paul Smith-Profit – Lakeland Rustlers Terrell Murdaugh – Lakeland Rustlers
Gemie Muya-Ntalaja - SAIT Trojans Charlie Conner – SAIT Trojans