River Lions wrap up regular season
The Niagara River Lions have almost two weeks to get ready for two games.
The River Lions wrapped up their Canadian Elite Basketball League regular season with an 82-72 win over the Brampton Honey Badgers at CAA Centre Saturday to finish atop the Eastern Conference standings with a 13-7 record.
More importantly, the River Lions clinched first place overall and are the No. 1 seed heading into the CEBL championship weekend Aug. 11-13 in Langley, B.C.
River Lions head coach Victor Raso now must balance some much-needed rest for his squad while keeping them sharp and ready for the Eastern Conference semifinal game Aug. 11.
“It’s a tricky situation,” Raso said. “I did it once before five years ago when we won the conference and had a bit of time off.”
Raso gave the team Sunday and Monday off, but will reconvene the squad Tuesday to begin preparing for the semifinal.
“We won’t start with five-on-five practices until Wednesday. I will mix in some different stuff, some intense individual skill-building sessions, some team building sessions,” Raso said. “We will have some team events, our mental skills coach is coming in for a final year-end meeting with the group and then practices will remain the same as they are. We’ll have a little more time to mimic game situations but the biggest thing is finding ways to make sure that we are still mentally sharp.”
Raso is mindful not to take his foot off the gas, lest the team become sluggish.
“Earlier in the year, we had a seven or eight-day break and we kind of completely removed ourselves for three or four days. This isn’t the same. The guys are getting two days off and we are right back into locking in because with this type of time, if you take it too lightly, it can feel like you haven’t played forever but if your mindset is the same, you’ll be all right.”
Raso reports a healthy roster, not to mention the fact stars Khalil Ahmad, Jahvon Blair and Antonio Davis, Jr. did not play Saturday.
“We’re not banged up. Two days off is enough to everybody to recover and our starters didn’t play Saturday so they’ve had three days off,” he said.
Raso is well aware no matter how hard the River Lions attempt to recreate game situations in practice, it’s just not the same.
“The biggest thing is not being in a rhythm so maybe that first quarter is not as smooth as some of these other teams that have been playing but we get a chance to sit and home and prepare while everyone else dukes it out,” he said.
Raso is champing at the bit for the playoffs to start.
“I am very eager. I wish we left tomorrow. I wish it was all done now but we have to take advantage. This is a bit of a blessing so we have to make it a blessing and have the best week possible.”
Saturday, Niagara’s Kimbal MacKenzie took over starting point guard duties for Ahmad and filled in admirably. He scored 17 points and dished seven assists while Patrick Whelan also contributed off the bench with 14 points. Shawn Occeus chipped in with eight points, six rebounds, five steals and the game-winning free throw.
“I was really proud of the way in the second half, we just got back to our fundamentals,” Raso said. “It seemed like we were playing the basketball we’ve been playing all year, which is awesome because it means there’s a togetherness [with] the group and a standard of how we do things.”
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