The Scarborough Shooting Stars are headed to back-to-back CEBL Championship games after knocking off the top-ranked Niagara River Lions 74-71 at Langley Events Centre on Friday.
Cat Barber powered the Shooting Stars to victory with a team-high 15 points on 5-16 shooting to go along with six rebounds, three assists and two steals.
Scarborough locked down defensively, holding the highest scoring offence in the CEBL to 71 points – their third consecutive game with a points against in the 70s. Niagara shot 39 per cent from the field while tallying 19 turnovers that led to 28 points.
The Shooting Stars also dominated the paint, outscoring the River Lions 44-16 and snagging 20 offensive rebounds.
“It’s effort. Those are all effort plays. Those are plays that show how much the team wants to win,” Scarborough head coach Chris Exilus said. “Plays that are not always on the stat sheet…what you saw was was a resilient group that played together. On this team, nobody cares who makes the play.”
The Shooting Stars had four players reach double-digits in the win. Gedi Juozapaitis was scorching hot from the corners throughout the game, hitting four threes on his way to 13 points. Isiaha Mike chipped in 12 points, including six in target score time despite going 4-11 from the field.
Big man Kalif Young was also a dominant force in the paint for Scarborough. He secured a double-double with 11 points, 11 rebounds, four steals and one block.
“I just think we’ve really bought into our system,” Young said. “You don’t win in those big moments and win championships without locking down on defence and focusing in on players. I think our biggest thing was focusing on a really good player in Khalil Ahmad today.”
Ahmad was named 2023 CEBL Clutch Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and received an All-CEBL First Team nod on Wednesday. However, he was held to eight points on 2-8 shooting from the field on Friday night.
“I don't think [Ahmad] was aggressive enough and I think there was a little bit of time where he got frustrated with the wrong things and how physical they were being,” Niagara head coach Victor Raso said.
Meanwhile, Jahvon Blair netted a game-high 20 points for the River Lions on 7-17 shooting and four threes. Edward Ekiyor produced inside with 15 points and six rebounds.
It’s now the second consecutive year the Shooting Stars eliminate the River Lions during Championship Weekend.
“We were just fighting ourselves offensively and not really sticking to the plan. But even with that being said, we had a chance down the stretch,” Raso said. “I didn't think we were aggressive enough, early enough. Offensively, that was probably the biggest thing.”
After almost two weeks of rest, the River Lions were cold to start the game. Niagara didn’t connect on a field goal for the opening five minutes of action but got to the free throw line. The River Lions sent multiple defenders at Barber, but he was able to get out in transition with a steal and score before slicing through the defence for a layup.
Niagara came out of the TV timeout hot. Blair dialed long distance twice and Antonio Davis Jr. finished through contact to complete the hoop and the harm. However, Scarborough was active on the offensive glass with putbacks from Kyree Walker and Young. Patrick Whelan came off the bench towards the end of the quarter to drill a three and give the River Lions a 20-14 lead after 10 minutes.
At the start of the second quarter, the River Lions climbed to their largest lead of the night at 12 points with a 6-0 run. However, Juozapaitis buried back-to-back corner threes for Scarborough to end the run and force a Raso timeout.
Out of the team talk, Young made an impact in the paint with an outstanding sequence of plays. He blocked Ekiyor at the rim to force a shot clock violation, completed an and-one, grabbed a rebound and finished a reverse layup to cap off an 11-0 Scarborough run.
The Shooting Stars stayed hot and achieved their first lead of the quarter with a two-handed slam from Mike. After a 21-3 run from Scarborough, Kimbal Mackenzie hit a timely three to take the River Lions into halftime down 35-32.
In the first two quarters, turnovers held back the Niagara offence. They gave the ball up 12 times, leading to 15 points for the Shooting Stars. However, Scarborough struggled from long range going 3-19 for 15 per cent in the first half. Blair led all scorers with 11 points at halftime while Juozapaitis scored 10.
To start the second half, Scarborough and Niagara traded blows. Blair continued to have the hot hand and helped keep the River Lions close as the Shooting Stars maintained the lead. Juozapaitis buried another corner three to cap off a 7-0 run for Scarborough but TJ Lall beat the buzzer with a corner triple of his own to cut the deficit to 53-47 after three.
After a scoreless third quarter, Barber got going in the final frame. He scored six points early in the fourth to extend Scarborough’s lead to 10 points. However, Niagara went on a timely run before target score time.
Ahmad got his first hoop of the game with a clutch and-one. Ekiyor feasted in the paint before Lall drilled a three from the corner to cap off a 14-2 run and give Niagara a 65-63 lead with a target of 74.
The Shooting Stars quickly clapped back at the start of target time. Walker spun and finished a tough layup while draped by a defender before Mike found mesh from the right wing. Another contact layup from Walker pushed Scarborough four points away from victory.
However, Ahmad hit a clutch three to narrow the gap. The River Lions trapped full court and forced a turnover that led to a game-tying Davis layup. But another bucket from Mike put the Shooting Stars two points away from a win.
An unsportsmanlike foul in transition by Lall was reviewed and confirmed by officials. Mike went to the line for Scarborough with a chance to send them to the championship but missed the first. After Mike made the second, Lall came up with a steal and went to the line himself, hitting one and intentionally missing the second.
An offensive rebound on ensuing possession for Scarborough helped put Barber on the free throw line. He rattled in the game-winning free throw to book the Shooting Stars a trip to the CEBL Championship game on Sunday at 7 p.m. ET.