Solid stretches of play mixed with learning moments as Griffins finish season with loss to Vikes

Thai Haak led the Griffins with 13 points and also drew the tough assignment of guarding the reigning Canada West player of the year Diego Maffia, pictured (James Maclennan photo).
Thai Haak led the Griffins with 13 points and also drew the tough assignment of guarding the reigning Canada West player of the year Diego Maffia, pictured (James Maclennan photo).

Jefferson Hagen
MacEwan Athletics

EDMONTON – Usually, you can't have it both ways – you don't get to have the biggest team and the fastest at the same time.

But the Victoria Vikes put both aspects of their national championship-contending squad on display Saturday as they beat the MacEwan Griffins 87-58, while resting their starters liberally in the second half.

It was a perfect litmus test for a young Griffins team that heads into the off-season with a fresh example of the type of basketball it will take to become the best.

"That's why they're the No. 2 team in the country and No. 1 in our conference," said MacEwan head coach Mike Connolly. "That's the way you're supposed to be. That's how good teams at a championship level play. 

"We didn't do a good job the first half. The second half, I thought we did a better job defending. We held them to six points in the fourth quarter. But the first quarter, we let them go, we didn't stop them, we didn't play with urgency, and we let them dictate. 

"I think it's recognizing we have to defend; we have to give effort and when we do that, we can play with anybody. That's the difference."

With the result, the Griffins close out the 2023-24 campaign with an 0-20 record, while Victoria improves to a Canada West-best 15-3 ahead of a makeup series at home Feb. 14-15 against Thompson Rivers University to finish their regular season.

The Griffins had four players score in double digits, led by Thai Haak with 13, while Milan Jaksic, Joel Seke and Matthew Osunde all had 11 points, the latter narrowly missing his second-straight double double with nine rebounds.

Osunde moved into fifth all-time in career Canada West points at MacEwan, now with 651. He also broke the program record for the highest minutes/game average in a CW season with 37.3, topping Lee Danderfer's 35.7 mark, set in 2014-15.

"It means while I have more work to do, the work I've put in is paying off," said Osunde. "It's good to be always breaking records like that because it shows I'm growing."

As for rarely leaving the court this season, Osunde said he embraced the big role the Griffins had for him.

"I could be in better shape, but I came in in pretty good shape this season because I knew that was going to be the expectation," he said. "Just mentally telling myself I'm not tired when I am tired – just pushing through it."

Matthew Osunde played 38 minutes on Saturday and finished the season with a 37.3 minutes/game average - the highest ever by a Griffins player in Canada West play (James Maclennan photo).

Reigning Canada West player of the year Diego Maffia scored 18 of his game-high 27 points in the first quarter on Saturday and was on pace to challenge teammate Renoldo Robinson's record for the most in a conference game (46, set last month against Manitoba), but the coaching staff rested him for most of the second half. Shadynn Smid and Robinson chipped in 14 apiece, while big man Sergio Pereira was an unstoppable force on defence.

Haak drew the assignment of guarding Maffia and did well in spite of his output. As fast as he is, Maffia's speed is next level.

"It was tough," said Haak. "The thing guarding him that I learned the most is: For one, it's patience, and two, it's how collected and calm he is. You can throw a double team at him and he's still going to hit that pass over five hands into the corner. 

"It showed me that I still have a lot to work on as a player, but there are places to go. As hard as it is to guard someone like that, it also gives me a lot of motivation to get to that level."

Haak had a pretty solid game offensively, as well, leading the Griffins in scoring with his top output of the season, including going 2-for-2 on threes.

"Honestly, I didn't even feel like I was playing that well, but I just trusted that the shots I took, I should shoot them," he said. "The whole team has trust in me shooting my mid-range jumper and open three. So, it's less thinking about the actual shot than it is thinking, 'hey, this is my shot and I'm going to shoot.' "

The overall takeaway for the Griffins is sustaining their top level and effort all the time against the top teams.

"The second half of our season, we had our moments when we were right there with some pretty solid teams, so we can definitely build that into putting together full games," said Osunde. "I feel like that's our problem right now. We can play a great 35 minutes, but for five minutes we're terrible and that's where we lose a game. 

"So, going into next year, we can definitely look at what got us into close games and just maintain that level of play throughout."

FREE THROWS: Joel Seke broke the program record for the most points by a rookie in a Canada West season with 145, topping the 140 Lincoln Anderson had in 2017-18 … He also now owns the best points/game average by a Griffins rookie with 9.1, better than Osunde's 8.2 in 2021-22 ... Following the game, graduating senior Taylor Cook was celebrated in a ceremony.

Taylor Cook receives his graduating senior photo on men's basketball #SeniorDay Saturday (James Maclennan photo).