The Carleton Ravens have won it all – again – in Halifax.
The men’s basketball powerhouse from Ottawa eked out a 109-104 victory over the St. Francis Xavier X-Men in the 2023 U Sports National Championship game in Halifax, claiming their 17th national title in 20 years.
Carleton has won 10 of their titles at Scotiabank Centre. Head Coach Taffe Charles was an assistant for the first five titles in program history, from 2003 to 2007, under the legendary Dave Smart. The March 12 clincher was Charles’ first title in Halifax as head coach and third straight overall as Smart’s successor.
“I can’t be more proud of these guys,” Charles told The Signal after the game.
“These guys just kept fighting all year; we were dead to rights a whole bunch of times.”
Most of the Ravens players had won three consecutive national championships heading into the 2023 Final 8. Charles said his side’s experience gave them an advantage.
“When we got close, they (STFX) got a little tight,” he said.
“We knew we had to stay in it and keep grinding. We’ve been through these grinds before, especially with guys like Aiden (Warnholtz), Connor (Vreeken) and Elliot (Bailey) even being there.”
Both teams played to the final buzzer more than once. Carleton fought back from a 23-point deficit with some timely shots from their stars, Warnholtz and Vreeken.
As time ticked down in the fourth quarter, the host X-Men took a three-point advantage on free throws from star guard Avan Nava, setting up one of the most fantastic endings to a National Championship game.
Down by three with 15 seconds to go in regulation, Carleton’s Warnholtz stepped up and hit the shot of his life. A step-through three-pointer, with a defender blanketing him, sent the game into overtime.
“I thought I was gonna get the foul on the step-through,” Warnholtz told the media after the game.
“It was a bit of a lucky one, I can’t lie, but I am glad it went in.”
X-Men force double OT
The home squad from Antigonish N.S. stepped up in overtime. After Warnholtz built a three-point lead on free throws, STFX’s Nava tied the game on a three-pointer over tight defence. Nava pulled up against two Ravens defenders, with only three seconds remaining, and prolonged the X-Men’s season.
But the Ravens’ championship experience was the difference in double overtime as STFX could not score down the stretch. Carleton hit some late tough shots and went on to win by five points to claim their 17th W.P. McGee Trophy.
Warnholtz was named player of the game with 23 points and 11 assists, a double-double for the man from Ottawa. Warnholtz was also Tournament MVP for the Ravens and was named to the Final 8 All-Star team alongside fellow Ravens star Grant Shephard and X-Men forward David Muenkat.
X-Men coach: ‘It hurts’
STFX Head Coach Tyrell Vernon focused mostly on positives but acknowledged the pain of defeat.
“Obviously, it hurts to be on this side of a game like this,” Vernon told The Signal post-game.
“In basketball, a great offence sometimes beats a great defence, and I think that was a little bit of an example here.”
Vernon said the final was exactly where the program wanted to be after winning the Atlantic University Sport title and making a Final 8 run. Meanwhile, STFX is losing the U Sports Defensive Player of the Year in Muenkat.
Without their 6’7” defensive anchor and other graduating players, Vernon said new players will have to step up for the X-Men to return to the nationals in 2024.
“I know we’re going to work every day, and hopefully, we will be back here,” said Vernon.
“I don’t know if we’re going to be here right away. ”