It was, without a doubt, one of the greatest games this basketball-mad town has ever seen.
With the clock ticking toward zero and his University of the Fraser Valley Cascades trailing the Lethbridge Pronghorns 68-66 in the fourth quarter on Saturday, Joel Friesen launched a desperate step-back, fall-away three-pointer.
The buzzer sounded as the ball was in the air, with the near-capacity home crowd at the Envision Athletic Centre willing the ball to somehow find the basket.
When it improbably dropped through, the explosive roar of the crowd threatened to blow the roof off the gym.
Friesen’s heroics gave the Cascades a 2-1 win in the best-of-three first round playoff series, and they advance to the Canada West Final Four next week.
“I wasn’t sure if it was going in or not,” Friesen admitted with a grin afterward. “Once it was in, it was unbelievable. I’ve never hit a game-winner in my life, and it’s an amazing feeling.”
The host Cascades came into the series ranked No. 4 in the nation, and were favoured to win a playoff series for the first time since joining Canada West six years ago.
But the burden of expectation seemed to weigh heavily on the UFV men. They lost Thursday’s opener 87-78, and while they staved off elimination with a 74-66 victory on Friday, they struggled offensively for much of that game.
In Saturday’s rubber match, the Cascades opened double-digit leads on three occasions, only to watch the Pronghorns battle back each time.
Lethbridge’s last surge came with less than six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, as they went on a 9-0 run to turn a 59-55 deficit into a 64-59 lead.
The Cascades dug deep and knotted the score 64-64 with 1:30 remaining when Sam Freeman hit a pair of foul shots. After the two teams exchanged baskets, UFV got a defensive stop with 30 seconds left.
But on the ensuing possession, Cascades point guard James York picked up his dribble along the baseline and turned the ball over, igniting a Pronghorns fast break that ended with Logan Reiter scoring a go-ahead layup with 13.8 seconds left.
The Cascades called timeout, and head coach Barnaby Craddock drew up a play for Friesen to drive to the basket, with three-point ace Freeman spotted up in the corner as the second option.
Friesen, a southpaw, drove to his left, but the Pronghorns forced him to give the ball up to Freeman on the right wing. He pump-faked once before flipping the ball back to Friesen, who had looped around along the baseline.
Friesen pump-faked a Lethbridge defender into the air, took a dribble, stepped back, then launched his fateful fallaway.
In the aftermath, the Cascades players mobbed Friesen at centre court, then sprinted to the locker room.
“We all interlocked hands and enjoyed the moment,” Friesen said after emerging a couple minutes later. “We just kind of took it all in together, because we knew how hard we’d worked since the summertime. It’s an unbelievable feeling for us to be successful, after everything we’ve been through as a group.”
Asked what was going through his mind when Friesen’s shot fell through, Craddock had to take a moment to compose himself.
“I just really wanted our guys to experience the Final Four and a chance to go to nationals,” he said. “It was such a chathartic release of tension, because I really feel the guys on our team have worked very hard and are very deserving.”
When Friesen launched his three-ball, Cascades centre Jasper Moedt was battling for rebounding position under the hoop.
“At first, I thought the buzzer had gone off before Joel hit it,” Moedt said, relating his emotional roller-coaster. “Then I thought it was a two. Then I thought there was still time left. And by the time I realized it, everyone else was at the other end of the court, and I was sitting there crying. I’m still in shock.
“I have faith in my team, but that was ridiculous from Joel. That’s why I love playing with him. I’m going to stay on his team.”
Freeman led UFV with 15 points, while Friesen played his best game of the series, scoring 12 points on 4-for-6 shooting. Moedt (13 points) and Mike James (10) also scored in double figures.
Power forward Dominyc Coward paced the Pronghorns with 20 points and 10 rebounds, while Morgan Duce (15 points, four three-pointers) and Derek Waldner (11 points, 10 rebounds) also had big games.
“I give Lethbridge a lot of credit,” Friesen said. “They played their hearts out for the full three games.
“For us to come out on top, it’s a great moment. We played the 40 minutes (in Game 3) to the last second, and that was it.”
Craddock acknowledged his team had some nervous moments, but noted that it’s all part of the growth curve for a program that had never before been favoured in a Canada West playoff series.
“I think the pressure of playing as a favourite was very new to us and definitely affected the way we performed at the offensive end,” Craddock said. “But you can’t question our guys’ heart or defensive intensity or effort.”
The Cascades advance to the Canada West Final Four for the first time, joining the Saskatchewan Huskies (2-0 quarter-final series winners over Trinity Western), the Alberta Golden Bears (2-0 over UBC), and the Victoria Vikes (2-1 over Calgary).
The Huskies will host the Final Four in Saskatoon, and the Cascades play Victoria in the semifinals on Friday at 6:15 p.m. local time (4:15 p.m. PST). The top two Canada West teams move on to nationals, with the third-place team possibly advancing as a wild card.
The UFV women’s hoopsters had already clinched a trip to their Final Four tourney, after completing a two-game sweep of the Calgary Dinos on Friday.
As for the legacy of Friesen’s dramatic game-winner, Craddock said it best.
“He hit a shot that’s going to be remembered in the Fraser Valley for as many years as you can talk about it,” he said.