Help arrives for the River Lions
Reinforcements have arrived for the Niagara River Lions.
Heading into Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. home-opener at the Meridian Centre against the Saskatchewan Rattlers, the Canadian Elite Basketball League squad has announced the signing of reigning CEBL MVP Khalil Ahmad.
The 6-foot-4 guard from Corona, Calif., recently returned from from Israel where he suited up for Hapoel Beer Sheva. There, he averaged 12.9 points, 3.2 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game.
“I’m very excited to be returning to the River Lions organization and to the Niagara region,” Ahmad said. “I’m looking forward to being back inside the Meridian Centre on Saturday in front of the best fans in the CEBL. I know we have some unfinished business from last summer and I can’t wait to contribute to the success of the team both on and off the court.”
Ahmad will be welcomed back Saturday with a special pre-game ceremony to recognize his MVP award. Victor Raso, Niagara’s head coach and general manager, knew two weeks ago his star player would be returning but he was waiting until his season ended.
“I am pretty excited.” Raso said. “He adds exactly what we need right now, an elite American guard who is very capable of taking over a game and someone who really causes problems if you don’t cover him with more than one person. He can really get it going offensively and be that elite guard.”
Last season with the River Lions, the former Cal State Fullerton scholarship player averaged a CEBL high of 20.7 points per game and a Niagara-leading 4.5 assists and 1.9 steals per game. He was fourth in the league in steals and shot 45 per cent from the floor. He was also named the league’s Clutch Player of the Year after recording 10 of the 13 Elam target score enders during the 2022 season.
He is exactly what the River Lions need.
“We have been fighting through it the last three games with not having too much flow on offence and not being able to score easy offensively,” Raso said.
Ahmad helps with that and also give the River Lions some who can close out games.
“All we needed in the Calgary game was a bucket and we struggled to get it. With Khalil it is different. At the end of the game, when teams are playing as hard as they can and really protecting the rim, you have to have a guy who can go get it. Not that we don’t have guys who can go get it, but Khalil is by far the best one that I have ever coached in terms of scoring and doing it in multiple ways.”
Niagara has opened the season with road losses to the Montreal Alliance (84-69), Calgary Surge (85-82) and Edmonton Stingers (99-94).
“Two of those games we should have won even without Khalil and adding him into the mix is obviously encouraging for our long-term prospects,” Raso said. “I still think this team is very capable of being really good.”
He knows there is pressure on the team because of its start.
“In some cases, it would be serious panic mode and we need to make serious adjustments but I don’t. Adding Khalil to this group and Phil (Scrubb) in a few weeks from now gives us all the pieces we need.”
Raso doesn’t characterize Saturday’s tilt as a must-win game.
“We can still accomplish all of our goals if we don’t win tomorrow but there is definitely a sense or urgency and there is a bit of pressure mounting amongst these guys,” he said. “The feeling in the room is that we are still a good basketball team but that has to show up in your wins and losses.”
The River Lions will have to do that on the fly Saturday night.
“Khalil practised with us today (Friday) and he fit in quite smoothly but adding in your most dominant ball handler right away, there are going to be bumps along the way,” Raso said. “Saskatchewan is very good and we are going to have to be good tomorrow and we are going to have to be good quickly.”
Season tickets, voucher packs, group tickets and single game tickets are on sale now. Visit www.riverlions.ca/tickets for more information.