River Lions dominate home opener
Khalil Ahmad picked right up where he left off last season.
The reigning Canadian Elite Basketball League most valuable player returned to the court for the first time in 2023 and quickly made his presence felt.
The 26-year-old California native poured in 17 points and also added eight rebounds, 10 assists and five steals as the Niagara River Lions defeated the visiting Saskatchewan Rattlers 116-74 Saturday night in their home opener in St. Catharines.
“We had the jitters a little bit, we were vibrating and once we settled down we played basketball,” Ahmad said.
Ahmad missed Niagara’s first three games (all road losses) of the season while he was finishing up his commitment with Hapoel Beer Sheva in Israel where he averaged 10.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game.
After spending a quick week at home, Ahmad joined the River Lions for practice Friday.
“It’s tough, but it’s basketball,” he said. “It’s just a game. I’m blessed to be able to play it.”
Ahmad was honoured before the game for the MVP award, but said winning is first and foremost on his mind.
“I’m just trying to win. Accolades are cool but recognition only comes with wins. We have to be able to win. I don’t want to be averaging 20 on the last team in the league. I want to get a ring — a real ring — not the MVP one.”
Niagara coach Victor Raso said Ahmad’s presence in the lineup was a game changer.
“He unlocks everything we need to be unlocked,” Raso said. “We’re big, our guards are tough, we have shooters, but we were missing somebody to be the centre of attention and as soon as he came back in, it completely changed Jahvon Blair’s game and allows our post players to run the floor and wear people out.
“He’s the best player in the league.”
Raso wasn’t the least bit worried despite the 0-3 start.
“That road trip was hard as hell. We played good teams in big spots for them in their seasons,” he said. “I kept telling our guys we are really good, we’re going to be really good and stick with it and it validated it today.
“That’s how good this team is.”
The River Lions, buoyed by a raucous crowd of 3,582 fans, raced out to a 71-38 lead by halftime.
“I think our focus was to get out and punch them in the mouth as soon as the game started,” Ahmad said. “It’s easier to play from head than behind.
“That’s going to be one of the keys for us going forward.”
Raso appreciated the electric atmosphere at Meridian Centre.
“It was awesome. Every year the River Lions get bigger and bigger. We’re more in the community, there’s more people in the stands. Our arena is such a fun place to play. The way it looks, it feels like you’re at an NBA game.”
River Lions 116 Rattlers 74
BPSN Player of the Game: Niagara’s Khalil Ahmad with 17 points, eight rebounds and 10 assists.
Niagara River Lions: Ahmad 17; Jahvon Henry-Blair 21; Antonio David Jr. 20; Edward Ekiyor 13; Patrick Whelan 12.
Saskatchewan Rattlers: Justin Wright-Foreman 21; Michael Nuga 12; Anthony Tsegakele 11.
Game stats: Field goals: Niagara 42/76 (55.3 per cent), Sask. 28/70 (40 per cent); Three pointers: Niagara 16/36 (44.4 per cent), Sask. 8/30 (26.7 per cent); Rebounds: Niagara 44, Sask. 33; Turnovers Niagara 13, Sask. 21.
Up next: The River Lions are home to the Scarborough Shooting Stars Thursday at 7 p.m. and the Vancouver Bandits Saturday at 7 p.m.
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