Back in the fall, few pundits expected much from the University of the Fraser Valley men’s basketball team.
That much was evident when the Canada West preseason coaches’ poll was released in October, which saw the Cascades ranked No. 11 out of 16 teams.
And yet four months later, here they sit – in possession of a ticket to the Canada West Final Four and riding a program-record 16-game winning streak.
The latest victory came on Friday night, when UFV completed a sweep of their best-of-three first-round playoff series vs. the Lethbridge Pronghorns, winning 77-62 at the Envision Athletic Centre.
“I preach to the guys that we don’t assume anything,” Cascades head coach Adam Friesen said, reflecting on the lowly preseason ranking. “No one else is going to tell us how good or bad we are, or how our season’s going to go. Only we’ll decide that. And the guys really bought into that.”
The Lethbridge series was a strength-against-strength battle between the Pronghorns’ Canada West-leading offence (84.3 points per game) and the Cascades’ second-ranked defence (66.1 points allowed per game).
Defence trumped offence, as UFV held Lethbridge 20 points below their regular season average in both games – Thursday’s 66-64 win and Friday’s triumph.
Both nights, sophomore sharpshooter Manny Dulay inserted the dagger at the offensive end for UFV. On Thursday, his trey with 20 seconds left lifted the Cascades to victory, and on Friday, he sparked a three-point binge in the fourth quarter that helped UFV pull away.
“We talked at halftime only about offence,” Friesen said, whose team hit just 33.3 per cent of their attempts from the field in the first half and trailed 30-27 at that juncture.
“We knew we had to hit some shots and stretch them out. We just hadn’t been doing that for a game and a half. The moment they were forced to guard penetration, low post and the three, that was tough for them, and we finally capitalized on our open looks.”
The Cascades were red-hot from downtown in the second half, hitting half (11-of-22) of their attempts. Dulay counted six triples among his game-high 24 points, while Kevon Parchment (19 points, seven rebounds, six assists) and Jasper Moedt (11 points, nine rebounds) also had big games.
Brandon Brine was terrific for the Pronghorns, scoring 22 points on 10-of-17 shooting, but he was the only Lethbridge player to hit double figures as UFV limited them to 38.5 per cent shooting from the field.
The other three Canada West men’s basketball playoff series got underway on Friday, with Alberta beating UBC 84-64, Winnipeg stunning favoured Victoria on the road 79-51, and Saskatchewan topping Thompson Rivers 82-68.
The Cascades have now qualified for the Canada West Final Four three years in a row – a feat which only UVic, should they win their next two games vs. Winnipeg, could potentially boast.
“It’s unbelievable . . . for this group of guys and this school,” Friesen said.
UFV’s humble preseason ranking was somewhat understandable, given that they had waved goodbye to graduating stars Sam Freeman and Kyle Grewal following the 2012-13 season.
But nevertheless, it provided bulletin board material for the current crop of Cascades.
“When we saw that, of course it was a motivational tool for us, because we believe it’s a little bit disrespectful in a sense,” Friesen said. “But we also realized that, hey, we have a lot to prove. We had to get to the business of working every day to prove that we’re potentially as good as we think we could be.
“Maybe we were the 11th-best team in September . . . it’s not for us to judge.
“But now, we’re going to be at least a top four team. We’ll take it.”