For the Ottawa Gee-Gees men’s basketball team, any victory against their Bytown rivals is sweet, especially when achieved on home court in the exciting setting of Montpetit Hall.
The top-ranked Ottawa Gee-Gees men’s basketball team continued its flawless start to the 2023-24 USPORTS men’s basketball season. They rallied from a daunting 19-point third-quarter gap to secure a 79-78 victory over the defending champions, the Carleton Ravens. The win sent the Ravens to their worst first-half start of a season in twenty-five years.
Down by 19 points in the late stages of the third quarter, the Gee-Gees orchestrated a spectacular 24-0 run, seizing the lead at 68-63. The game’s climax unfolded in the last 30 seconds, as the two familiar foes exchanged the lead twice, culminating with a last-second jump shot from senior guard Jacques-Mélaine Guemeta, a free throw line extended jumper that secured a one-point win for Ottawa.
The Gee-Gees have now won fifteen straight games to open the season and are 19-1 in their last 20 games since losing a six-point (81-75) game to Carleton in the 2023 national semifinal in Halifax. It’s just Ottawa’s third win in their last ten head-to-head matchups against their rivals.
The Ravens, on the other hand, suffered their third consecutive defeat for the first time since January 2000, falling to Ryerson (74-70), Concordia (75-73), and McGill (55-54). Their 5-5 record in the Ontario University Conference (OUA) marked their worst start since 1998, when they entered the Christmas break with a 2-3 record.
Despite initial shooting struggles, Guemeta, who was held scoreless in the first half, rebounded in the fourth quarter, contributing seven of his nine points. He also showcased his defensive capabilities with five rebounds and four steals, energizing the home crowd with fast break dunks.
“I was not hitting my shots at first, so I figured I have to help my team defensively, and then I’m going to pick up the game offensively. So I just started to make sure I get my presence felt on the defensive end, and then we’re going to pick up on the offensive end”. shared Guemeta amidst the court storming after the win.
Although the last play was drawn for him, the experience gained from last season allowed Guemeta to knockdown the winning shot. “It was incredible. We didn’t finish the play, the play was not drawn for me to take a shot, but I had it, and I’m a shooter, so I just took the shot.”
In his second season with the Gee-Gees, Kevin Otto played a crucial role, finishing with a game-high 23 points on 9-of-12 shooting. Otto’s performance, combined with his defensive contributions of five rebounds and four steals, exemplified the team’s perseverance and determination to win.
When asked about the key to their comeback, Otto replied, “It’s called grit, determination, ambition, confidence, and family. That’s all we preach throughout the whole year. We go into the locker room down 11 or 12, and we take a moment to breathe, become composed, and remember our brand of basketball. That’s the reason why we’re number one in the country.”
For Carleton, the faces may be different, but the outcome was nearly the same for the Ravens, who entered their first of two guaranteed regular season matchups with the Gee-Gees with a series record of 59 wins and 14 losses since January 1997.
Led by talented freshman point guard Xavier Spencer, Carleton surged to an 8-3 lead and extended it to a 29-16 edge as they knocked down 11-of-20 shots and 4-of-8 triples in a hot shooting opening ten minutes after the first quarter.
Pounding the glass for second chance opportunities and limiting the Gee-Gees’ transition game to just two points off of seven turnovers, Carleton out-rebounded Ottawa 17-5 and held the number one team in the country to just five points in the first seven minutes of the second quarter. As a result, the defending champions’ lead swelled to 16 points with a score of 39-23 after a made jump shot by Marjok Okado.
Back-to-back three-pointers, including a buzzer-beater by the all-OUA conference point guard Dragan Stajic, cut the Ravens’ lead to 45-32 at halftime.
After the break, unfazed by the edgy and ready-to-explode Montpetit Hall home crowd, the Ravens continued to follow the game plan as they stifled multiple Gee-Gee’s attempts to cut into their double-digit lead.
Just as momentum was starting to swing Ottawa’s way, Carleton responded with a 13-4 run. Three-pointers by Aubrey Dorey-Havens, Wazir Latiff, and Okado and a tough inside basket by freshman Augustas Brazdeikis extended the lead to a game-high 19 points. This forced the Gee-Gees to take a timeout, with the score at 63-44 and 2:13 remaining in the third quarter.
With the bitter taste of yet another missed opportunity to beat their struggling rivals settling in, thanks to what seemed like an insurmountable lead, Ottawa Gee-Gees head coach James Derouin perfectly captured the third-quarter mood and the general atmosphere of what transpired next during our post-game interview.
“We didn’t show up ready to fight, I mean, the first quarter was the game, you know, I didn’t think we were going to have enough left to come back from that. We showed signs throughout, you know, the second quarter, early third, but, you know, we just kept making mistakes defensively and, you know, I really didn’t think that we had it tonight, honestly.”
“Like, I was ready to go, okay, we got work to do. And Kevin Otoo and, you know, JM (Jacques-Melanie Guemeta) and Dragan, they just kept fighting and fighting, and I’m not even really sure how that happened, to be honest with you.”
What transpired next was a complete meltdown by the youngest team in the country. Despite committing only nine turnovers in the first half and limiting the transition-focused Gee-Gees to only eight points off turnovers and fast breaks in the first half, Carleton struggled to advance the ball past half court.
Moreover, they committed three consecutive turnovers at mid-court, resulting in a total of 12 turnovers in the quarter. This allowed Ottawa to quickly erase nine-points off of the deficit and trim to 63-53 going into the final quarter.
Former Carleton Ravens guard Khalifa Koulamallah, now with the Gee-Gees, played a significant role, contributing 17 points in just 16 minutes off the bench. Koulamallah’s impact became more pronounced when starting point guard Dragan Stajic fouled out, and he scored crucial points, including a go-ahead jumper, securing a 77-76 lead with 32 seconds left.
Reflecting on the turnaround, Koulamallah emphasized the team’s commitment to defence: “It just took us being ourselves. We really shied away from playing defence. We focused too much on our offensive side, and once we dug down and really played defence, that’s what we’re all about. And then we were able to climb back into this game, and that was it.”
“We play for each other. Dragic went down, I told him I had his back, and we kept pushing, we kept pushing. We play for each other. Every day we play for each other. Practice for each other. That’s how we end up getting the win. It wasn’t just me. My teammates were great today.”
Carleton dominated Ottawa on the glass with a 62-30 rebounding advantage and distributed the ball effectively with 16 assists on 29 made field goals. They also scored 31 points off the bench, compared to Ottawa’s 17.