River Lions have their eyes on the prize
The Niagara River Lions have been a perennial contender for the Canadian Elite Basketball League championship.
In the league’s five seasons, Niagara has been in the semifinals four times with the lone exception coming in the COVID bubble year in Niagara. The River Lions have been ousted in the semifinals twice and lost in the finals once. Head coach/GM Victor Raso would love to see his squad finally get over the hump at the Langley Events Centre in Langley, B.C.
“That has been our goal right from the start, to win the Eastern Conference and get the bye and win the championship. It’s the goal every year but this year it feels that just making it here wasn’t enough.”
Raso and the organization have learned a lot from their three previous trips to the Final Four.
“The one year when we lost in the final, that team was ravaged by COVID but the first year we didn’t handle ourselves well once we got out here in terms of giving people high ground a bit and us providing bulletin board material,” he said. “I think last year we did a really bad job at that but it’s also understanding that we can’t just come out here and expect to play well. The things you win with out here you start building in training camp. My goal this year was to stick to that and make sure the organization was really good. We’ve done a better job of that this year than we’ve done in the past and a lot of that is because I wasn’t happy with how it went last year.”
Raso was pleased with his team’s preparations.
“They went as well as they possibly could of. It was a difficult task since we had such a long time off but we handled it really well mixing it up between individual workouts, practices, scrimmages and situational stuff. We are in a really good spot. Lloyd (Pandi) isn’t going to play but we are as healthy as we’ve ever been. All the guys who played in the last five games are healthy going into tomorrow (Friday) so that’s big.”
Raso would love to have had Pandi at his disposal.
“Of course, but the last five games this has been the group that is going so we have to roll with the punches a bit.”
He can’t helped be worried a little about court rust.
“I couldn’t be happier with how the preparations have gone and we are still playing basketball the way we were playing before. The guys are sharp and well-rested but also still in shape. But it is a concern. These guys (Scarborough) have played four games since we played our last one and being in a rhythm and all those things exist.”
He believes his squad is still in rhythm.
“We’ll see when the ball goes up but we kind of have to expect that the first five minutes might not be as good as it has been.”
Prior to their break, the River Lions were playing their basketball of the season. They won their last four games, including two against the former first-place Ottawa BlackJacks, to clinch a bye into the semifinals.
“There was a level of togetherness combined with our organization. We are as organized a team as I have ever had in terms of building the predictability within each other and what we are trying to do. It allows us to get through some difficult times and build true chemistry as opposed to just being random and creative on the floor,” he said. “We were doing that better and it’s because we stuck to the same things we’ve used since the start.”
Niagara beat Scarborough two of three times during the regular season and there’s no secret how to eclipse the Shooting Stars.
“You have to take care of transition both ways — you have to be able to run against them and prevent them from running against you — and you have to do a really good job on their main guys,” Raso said. “That is the strength of their team. It’s not that they are the most organized but they’ve got three guys who are true closers that can make shots. Cat Barber is the head of that snake and the games we beat them, one game we did a decent job and one game we did a phenomenal job. The last time we played them we didn’t do a good job at all of sticking to the game plan and making life difficult on him. We definitely have to do that tomorrow (Friday).”
The River Lions will play Friday at 5 p.m. EDT. If they win, they will play the Western Conference champion Sunday at 7 p.m. EDT. All games will be televised live on TSN and available to stream on TSN+ and CEBL+.