GUELPH — It’s defence that the newly minted Guelph Nighthawks want to be their calling card in the inaugural season of the Canadian Elite Basketball League.
After getting drubbed in the first half and being down by as many as 23 points midway through the third quarter, head coach Tarry Upshaw decided to switch things up and have his team apply full-court pressure to not only throw off their opponent, the Fraser Valley Bandits (0–2), but to reenergize their own play.
That decision produced a big comeback that saw Guelph (2–1) to a 95–94 victory.
“I like full-court pressure, I think it fits our team,” head coach Tarry Upshaw said. “As you look at our guys we’re long, we’re athletic, now we have two or three rim protectors so we can gamble a little bit, and I think when we make people play fast, they don’t play as well.
“Playing fast in the quarter-court is completely different than playing fast when you’ve got a guy on your hip and another guy running at you.”
In their third contest and their second-straight home game, the Nighthawks were led by Jamal Reynolds, who had 24 points, five rebounds, and four assists off the bench.
Aaron Redpath, a noted shooter who drained three triples during the final frame surge, finished with 16 points on 75 per cent shooting from the field (4–6 from three), but credited the defence rather than superior shotmaking.
“Basketball is conversion,” the 26-year-old said, “so any time you get a good defensive stop, it lets you get a good start on offence.
“What you choose to do with that start on offence is up to you and your team and your personnel, but I think in the second half we just locked in, started getting good defensive rebounds, out letting the ball, and just running.”
Tyrrel Tate had 22 points and seven assists on 80 per cent shooting off the bench for the Bandits, and Rodney Pryor (who played for the Raptors 905 this past season) and Dallin Bachynski each scored 14 points.
Both Meshack Lufile (Nighthawks) and Anton Gill (Bandits), the latter of whom dropped 24 points in his first meeting with Guelph, went down with ankle injuries in the first and second quarters, respectively. Neither returned.
Picking right up where they left off to end the third, the Nighthawks took advantage of the sudden momentum shift, firing off a 9–2 run fuelled by their increased defensive pressure to start the quarter.
The ball began to hum as the defence continued to find success, with the Nighthawks passing much more freely in the half-court offence and flying down the floor in transition, an aspect of the game they’ve dominated over their first three matchups.
“When we stay in the quarter-court and try to out-execute people at times we don’t look very fluid,” Upshaw said. “But when we release our athleticism, and we start to run, and we make defence our priority, I think we can play with anybody.
We have so many athletes that I can’t bottle them up. I’ve gotta unleash them and let them go, and when they go, they can really, really go.”
With 2:23 remaining, Myck Kabongo (a G League veteran) penetrated and found Chris Johnson open in the corner for three. Johnson drained the look (his first field goal of the game) and the Nighthawks took the lead, 91–89.
A few minutes later, Marshall rebounded an airball by Kabongo and popped it right back up into the hoop as he powered through contact and finished the and-one. Draining the subsequent free throw, Guelph took a two-possession lead, 95–91, with 42.4 seconds left and never looked back.
After being unable to put a stopper in their bleeding defence for the first half of the third, the Nighthawks finally found a remedy by implementing a full-court press that generated significant pressure, putting Fraser Valley on their heels and forcing them into a bevy of turnovers that led to the Nighthawks closing the quarter on a 10–2 run.
“The key was energy,” Redpath said. “Everything starts on the defensive end with energy and in first half we came out super flat, it felt like it was just an add-on to last game.
As soon as we came out in that second half we had a sense of urgency and we got up, we started full-court pressing, that got our legs going and our energy going, and then shots started dropping for us, and then it just, the crowd, everything, it started fuelling us.”
Bringing the tightly contested opening 10 minutes to an end, the Bandits roared out to a 14–0 run to kick off the second, forcing stop after stop with swift closeouts via a zone defensive look that also saw some high traps being sent Kabongo’s way whenever he was the initiator in the pick-and-roll, effectively slowing Guelph’s best player.
Overall, the Nighthawks were outscored 25–12 in the quarter and entered the half shooting a mere 30 per cent from the field (1–16 from three), trailing 51–35.
Rodney Pryor had 12 points on 71 per cent shooting, leading a balanced Bandits attack that saw eight players grace the scoreboard. Fraser Valley shot 50 per cent for the half.
It was a back-and-forth affair in a high-paced first quarter as both teams sought to get out and run after every missed shot, looking to take advantage of all openings created by one another’s scrambling defences.
Tate finally managed to break the tie to end the quarter, though, scoring an and-one layup with 0.9 seconds remaining to keep the Bandits ahead 26–23.
Next up, the Nighthawks will play the Edmonton Stingers on Fri., May 24 at 7 p.m. at the Edmonton EXPO Centre.