This weekend was a pivotal one for the Mustangs men's basketball season.
With time running out on a season marred by close defeats and a lack of execution, the Mustangs had a double header in the Soo against the Algoma Thunderbirds to salvage any hopes of a playoff appearance.
But after sweeping the back-to-back against division rival Algoma, the Mustangs inched closer to their potential and kept their Ontario University Athletics (OUA) playoff aspirations alive.
They won when they needed to. And they'll need to continue to play clutch basketball with four games remaining on the season.
"The two wins were huge for us, both for our confidence and our place in the standings," said Mustangs co-captain Eric McDonald. "Driving all the way to Sault Ste. Marie and then playing two games is never easy, especially against a team that plays well in situations where they play back-to-backs against the same team. We knew if we wanted a shot at making playoffs we had to win both of the games, and that’s exactly what we did so we’re happy with the result."
The first game of the double header saw the Mustangs grab the 79–67 win behind a 20 point performance from freshman Omar Shiddo. Eriq Jenkins added 11 points, while Cam Morris and Ian Smart had 10 points apiece.
The Mustangs pounded the ball inside, outscoring Algoma 30–10 in the paint. They also took advantage of their trips to the line, hitting 86.4 per cent of their free throws.
On Saturday the Mustangs returned to the George Leach Centre and won back-to-back games for the first time all year with an 86–75 win.
If Friday night was the Omar Shiddo show, Saturday saw an incredibly balanced Mustangs scoring attack. Jedson Tavernier had 17 points off the bench, while Shiddo and Morris added 16 and 15 points respectively.
Altogether, eight Mustangs had six points or more as the team shot a remarkable 56.9 per cent from the field and 55 per cent from three.
According to McDonald it was the Mustangs pace of play that allowed them to produce on offence and subsequently steal both games against a team also fighting for one of the OUA's 12 playoff berths.
"I think we were playing our best when we forced Algoma to play at our pace and we really got after them defensively," said McDonald. "When we got stops defensively and then pushed the ball we looked great, so that’s something that we’ll have to continue to build on."
The Mustangs will need the same offensive production moving forward. Not does an efficient scoring display like the one seen on Saturday put points on the board, but it allows the Western defence to dictate the tempo of games.
“It’s very important and we like to press defensively and turn up the heat a little bit from a defensive perspective," said Mustangs head coach Brad Campbell. "So anytime we can score and get them to inbound the ball it just helps our defence.”
At 5–11 the Mustangs are 15th in the OUA's Rating Percentage Index (RPI), which is the ranking used to determine the conference's 12 playoff teams. And with remaining games against Waterloo, Brock and McMaster at home, and Laurier on the road, the Mustangs will need to sprint to the finish line to earn a spot in the playoffs.
It's a challenge that Campbell and his team accepts. But to accomplish their goal, Western can't get ahead of themselves and focus too much on the bigger picture.
“The playoffs are definitely on our mind," said Campbell. "We’ve laid out what we think needs to get done and what we have to do to make the playoffs. But from a game perspective we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves. That was a big key this past weekend, knowing we need to get two wins against Algoma but we can’t win that second one until we win the first one so we gotta take one step at a time.”
Three weeks ago the playoffs were in no way a possibility for this young, inexperienced and rebuilding Mustangs team. But with three wins in their last five games, Western is back in the race.
And there's no better way to gain valuable experience than to play meaningful games in February.