Last weekend, the Dalhousie Tigers men’s basketball team achieved something never done before in the 56 year history of the program — win a medal at nationals.
Dalhousie hosted the national tournament at the Scotiabank Centre and to win in front of their home crowd was a memorable experience, says head coach Rick Plato.
“To say that I was very proud does not do justice to the way I felt about our players, especially our seniors. For them to go out as bronze medalists at the national tournament, in their very last career game, was special.”
Coming a long way
Plato already had a successful post-secondary career as both a player and coach prior to coming to Dalhousie for the 2013-14 season.
He won two national titles as a player with Saint Mary’s University in the late 1970s and helped lead Mount Saint Vincent University to 13 Atlantic College Athletics Association titles during his 25 years as their head coach.
When Plato was hired at Dal, he brought his assertive but caring coaching style with him.
“My relationship with my players, from my perspective, is that I look at them as sons,” says Plato.“I only want the best for them and sometimes; I can be very tough, very demanding and very challenging. However, I think down deep, they know I have only their best interests at heart.”
After being on former head coach John Campbell’s roster prior to Plato’s hiring, Kanza Mata and Lawrence had to adjust to Plato’s expectations.
“Our relationship has come a long way,” says Kanza Mata.“We (he and Plato) didn’t see eye to eye when he first came; it took a lot of communication and patience on both sides to understand each other and get used to one another’s personalities.”
That patience was evident in Plato’s first year. The Tigers went 6-14, missing the post-season for the first time since 2006.
When Plato was making over his roster in the off-season, it was Lawrence who was on the bubble.
“Kashrell Lawrence has been a pillar of strength for the Tigers for many years on the offensive end of the court. Now on defence, that has not always been the case,” says Plato.
“In fact, after his first year with me, we had a discussion that involved the discussion of me cutting him due to his lack of commitment on the defensive end.”
Lawrence took the conversation to heart. He worked on his game during the summer of 2014 and came back ready to compete that fall.
“Rick won’t stop pushing anybody. He cares about us and wants the best for us so he’ll always be tough until the end,” says Lawrence. “I think it’s made me a better person and a better player.”
During the 2014-15 regular season, Dalhousie earned their first trip to the AUS playoffs under Plato, after finishing 10-10. Despite being the No. 5 seed, the Tigers were able to pull off three-straight double-digit comebacks to claim the conference title.
The squad formed an identity as a hard-nosed defensive team, led by Kanza Mata and Lawrence. Kanza Mata was named defensive player of the year — the first Tigers player to ever earn the honour, while Lawrence was elected as a first team all-star.
“It took some time, and that’s why we kind of limped into the playoffs,” says Kanza Mata. “But we came together when it counted and we were resilient in all the games that we were losing, and that’s when our defence kicked in and we were able to win that first championship.”
In each of the following two seasons, the Tigers would finish as the top AUS seed and successfully defended their conference banner on both occasions. Kanza Mata and Lawrence would garner conference all-star selections along the way.
Last season at nationals, the team took a big step forward when they won in the quarterfinals. This season they went ever further, with their bronze medal finish.
“After four years together we developed a relationship in which he (Plato) trusted my decisions on the court, and I bought into all his coaching decisions. It became special on and off the court,” says Kanza Mata.
Plato was understandably emotional when reflecting on Kanza Mata and Lawrence’s university careers, having enduring the ups and downs that come from a player-coach relationship, and the joy of finishing on a high note.
“I love both of these young men like they are my own flesh and blood. Did we have our disagreements? Sure. Did they sometimes question my ways and demands? You bet. Did they always obey in a disciplined, respectful manner? Always,” he says.
“When the realization sinks in of these two young men no longer wearing the black and gold, there will be tears of sadness — but far more tears of joy and happiness — as these two young men have given so much, have asked for little in return but will be true ambassadors of our men’s basketball program, Dal basketball alumni and the entire university.
No school nickname [Tigers] could better illustrate what these two guys are like.”