Inexperience and panic sets in late as Griffins steal defeat from jaws of victory in 87-80 loss to Wesmen

Griffins rookie Isaiah Merk drains one of his five three-pointers in Saturday's contest. He had a team-high 24 points (Eduardo Perez photo).
Griffins rookie Isaiah Merk drains one of his five three-pointers in Saturday's contest. He had a team-high 24 points (Eduardo Perez photo).

Jefferson Hagen
MacEwan Athletics

EDMONTON – Things are too raw now.

The heartbreak is too palpable and stuck in their minds like a recurring insomnia-inducing nightmare.

Someday, though, the Griffins men's basketball team will look back on the lesson they were served in the fourth quarter of a tough 87-80 loss to the Winnipeg Wesmen on Saturday night (and it may even help them grow), as they conceded a 17-2 run against in the final two and half minutes to steal defeat from the jaws of victory.

"Guys are down," said head coach Mike Connolly, gritting his way through a tough post-game interview. "They know. We'll learn and we'll grow. We had a 17-point lead. We blew it. We turned it away. 

"With a young team, you don't want them to panic. You don't want them to start to slow it and think too much. They started to think too much. We wanted them to attack, keep playing and play natural. They over-thought and it cost them against an experienced team that just picked us apart."

It's hard to even recount the full sequence of how the Griffins inexplicably lost to the Wesmen after leading all game and, at one point, threatening to turn it into a blowout in their favour.

It was mostly a sum total of several late bobbles that blew it for the Griffins. 

They missed key threes down the stretch. 

They only made 45.5 per cent of their free throws in the fourth quarter.

And four starters fouled out in the waning minutes – Milan Jaksic, Damilola Osuma, Job Janda and Matthew Osunde, who was assessed a costly technical with 1:41 remaining that allowed the Wesmen to close within four and get the ball back.

To top it all off, the Wesmen cranked up the defensive pressure to 1,000 and ripped the knob off, creating 10 fourth-quarter turnovers, which led to them getting fouled on fast breaks and heading to the line to sink 21-of-26 free throws in the final 10 minutes.

"Inexperience," said Connolly. "That's all it is. We panicked. We made some silly mistakes. We turned the ball over. Our emotions got the best of us and that's just youth."

With the result, the Wesmen improve to 4-2 and the Griffins fall to 0-8.

In the process, though, there's no doubt MacEwan took some important steps forward this weekend, especially defensively.

"We got better," said Connolly. "We've talked about getting better. Did we get better from last weekend to Friday? I thought we did. Last night to today? Yeah, we did. 

"So, that's part of our process. If we play like we did tonight, we're winning some games.

The play of rookie Isaiah Merk was especially revelatory as he led the Griffins with a program rookie record 24 points and six rebounds in 32 minutes on the court. And after making 5-of-6 three pointers, he also broke the Griffins' record for the most in a Canada West game by a rookie, snapping the mark set by Osunde last season.

"He still made some rookie turnovers and mistakes down the stretch, but he shoots the ball a lot and we knew it would just be a matter of time before he hits it because he's in the gym at 6:30 every day," said Connolly. "I think as a rookie, you get used to the speed of the game. Now he's settled in and it's good to see him bust out and make some shots."

Shawn Maranan led the Wesmen with 27 points, 11 of those coming in a clutch fourth-quarter performance, and Alberto Gordo narrowly missed a double double with 12 points and nine boards. Winnipeg overcame the loss of Mikhail Mikhailov, who was DQ'd after getting two technicals called against him in just 11 minutes on the court.

Osunde added 14 points for the Griffins, while both Osuma and Jaksic hit 11, with the latter also adding nine rebounds.

MacEwan will try and put the tough loss behind them as they prepare for the final weekend of the first semester as they visit Thompson Rivers on Dec. 2-3.

"It's growing and learning as a young group," said Connolly. "They're a good group of guys. I love them. We just have to go through the ups and downs and just keep moving with it."