The Western Mustangs men's basketball team took a step forward this season. That much is undeniable.
They flipped the script from 7–13 last season to 15–9 this year. Several young and talented players affirmed their positions as future stars in the program. The Mustangs finally learned how to win, and this season was a successful one.
But none of that will take away the disappointment of their 89–72 loss to the Windsor Lancers. Their fourth-quarter implosion, with the Mustangs only down by five points, put the game out of reach.
During the regular season, the Mustangs dominated the Lancers in both games the Ontario University Athletics West Division rivals played. They beat the Lancers 93–78 at home in early November and then again on the road by a score of 94–86 on Feb. 3.
But when they met in the most important game of the year, Western wasn't up to the task. The difference in program cultures showed in the playoff showdown.
The Lancers, under head coach Chris Oliver, have been a perennial 20-win program over the last decade. They've won six OUA West regular season titles, two OUA West playoff titles, a Wilson Cup Ontario Championship and earned three berths to the CIS National Championships.
This year was the Windsor's worst under Oliver, as they struggled to a 13–11 record in the midst of a program rebuild. But in a do-or-die situation, the championship tradition of the Lancers shone, and the Mustangs revealed their inexperience when it comes to big games.
As the Lancers hit threes and the Mustangs failed to box out at multiple pivotal moments with the game on the line, the game quickly became out of reach.
This win would have been a massive one for the program. It would have meant a trip to the OUA Final Four, precedent that could have been set for future success. And it would have meant more basketball. For team building, nothing is more valuable.
Granted, Mustangs head coach Brad Campbell is working to build a championship tradition — this season has been a testament to that. He turned a team that looked destined for mediocrity into one of the final eight teams in the province. Further, this defeat, as disappointing and disheartening as it is, can be used as motivation. There's nothing more dangerous than a talented team with a vendetta, and that could be the Mustangs next season.
"We wish we could've ended our season on a better note, but unfortunately this is the way it worked out," Campbell said. "We took a nice step forward this year, and we need to look at how we're going to take another step forward next season. We're going to use this game, and the way we feel now as motivation to make sure this doesn't happen again next year."
The Mustangs return a number of pivotal pieces next season. Eriq Jenkins, Marko Kovac and Nik Farkic will be seniors. Omar Shiddo will be in his third year, and Chris Clegg will be a sophomore.
The Mustangs can be even better in 2018–19, and given how bad the OUA West was this season, they should have the opportunity to again compete for a first-round playoff bye and another shot at an OUA Final Four berth. Jedson Tavernier and Henry Tan, who played their final university basketball games on Saturday, believe the program is headed in the right direction.
"I think this whole season was a big step forward for us. We've had a couple down years in recent history, but this year we really got ourselves back to the top of OUA contention. I think next year is just going to be another step forward as the program keeps building," Tavernier said.
"This team can definitely go far next year. We have a lot of young and up-and-coming guys, so I feel if they continue to work hard and play within the system then they can definitely go even further next season," Tan said.
All season, the expectation was that the rails for this team would fall off. But they remained a consistent squad throughout. They beat the Ryerson Rams. They pushed the Ottawa Gee-Gees to the limit.
They returned to relevance ahead of schedule, and no playoff loss can change that.