Another pair of losses on the weekend did little to temper the admiration UBC Okanagan Heat coach Pete Guarasci has for his men's basketball team.
Now 2-15 in their second CIS Canada West campaign, the Heat nearly pulled off the upset of the season on Friday against the nation's No. 2-ranked UBC Thunderbirds. And they followed up with an impressive effort in a return match on Saturday at the UBCO gymnasium.
"I've never had to complain about my team's focus, and you could see why tonight," said Guarasci on Friday after the Heat fell 63-61 to the visiting T-Birds on a put-back basket by UBC's David Wagner in the dying seconds. "When it comes to practices, walk-throughs, shoot-arounds and timeouts - everything - they've always been focused."
Energized by a boisterous crowd of about 700 in the opening game of the weekend, the Heat's concentration remained steady throughout the battle of UBC cousins as the hosts led 23-22 at the quarter and took a 36-26 lead into the dressing room at halftime.
While the Thunderbirds came back to pull into a tie in a 20-10 third quarter, the Heat didn't let the visitors pull away. Only the late heroics by Wagner could silence the crowd and puncture the Heat's emotional balloon.
In what Guarasci termed a defensive showcase for his team, the Heat sustained pressure on the Vancouver-based visitors throughout, resulting in 22 Thunderbird turnovers.
"We did a really good job of guarding the ball tonight," noted Guarasci. "We stayed in front of them and made it difficult for them to penetrate all game long. From our point guard to our five-man, everyone was moving their feet. We were hustling and we were battling. It was awesome for me to watch."
Rookie Mitch Goodwin, a Kelowna Owls grad, was selected player of the game on the strength of his 13 points, three rebounds and two of steals. Fourth-year guard, Yassine Ghomari also scored 13 points and added two rebounds and two steals.
The home team players put themselves in position for quality shots for most of the game and finished with a 33.3 shooting percentage. Scoring by committee, they had three players in double digits and four others with five or more points.
On Saturday, it was the 6-foot-9 Wagner again leading his team in his return to the city where he played so well for the South Kamloops Titans against Central Okanagan high school teams. He led the Thunderbirds with 24 points and 10 rebounds in their 81-66 victory.
But fuelled by another supportive hometown crowd of about 500, the Heat made the T-Birds work for their Canada West playoff-clinching win. UBCO led 16-15 at the quarter and trailed 35-28 at the half. While the Thunderbirds outscored their hosts by eight points in the third quarter, they managed just one more point that the Heat in the final frame.
Coach Guarasci was unabashed about giving kudos to the hometown crowd or helping to motivate his team.
"I want to thank all the fans for their support. It was incredible, and I know our guys fed off the crowd. I guarantee you that with that kind of support we will end up every year with a two or three extra wins, just by having them there."
Meanwhile, Goodwin was selected as the Heat's player of the game for a second straight night. He finished with a team-high 20 points and was 4-for-8 from three-point range. Ghomari had 13 points and picked off four steals.
Again Guarasci acknowledged his pride for the Heat.
"To have those guys compete and work that hard, and to help the program build a culture of competitiveness, is just a luxury," said Guarasci. "I'm very grateful for the way they working so hard. They knew they were going to be in tough against a great team like the Thunderbirds, but they worked their hearts out."