Saskatchewan Rattlers complete storybook ending with 1st-ever CEBL Championship
Team makes history in front of boisterous hometown crowd
It was a storybook ending Sunday afternoon in Saskatoon as the hometown Saskatchewan Rattlers made history by capturing the first-ever Canadian Elite Basketball League title.
A boisterous crowd of 3,119 people chanted and cheered and roared throughout the contest as their hometown basketball heroes defeated the Hamilton Honey Badgers, 94-83.
The Rattlers' Alex Campbell led the team with 20 points and was named CEBL Championship Weekend Playoffs MVP.
"I'm just so proud. Everyone put their head down for the summer. Hard work. Dedication," said Campbell. "I heard good things about Saskatoon. I'm happy I came here."
Saskatchewan's head coach Greg Jockims, who won a national championship as coach for the hometown University of Saskatchewan Huskies in 2010, was emotional as his team celebrated.
"Wow. This one is special," he said as confetti streamed around the arena.
Jockims said it was a challenging first season trying to find the right chemistry between his players on the court. The team had a four-game mid-season losing streak they were able to work through.
"There were a lot of ups and downs. We had to work hard," Jockims said. "To play well at home makes this a little more special. Everyone is talented in this league. You have to have players buy in and this team did that."
Wicked pace to start championship
The Rattlers came out firing, scoring the first basket less than five seconds into the game. A wicked first quarter ended with a Honey Badgers' basket at the buzzer to give them a 23-21 lead going into the second frame. Honey Badgers' Xavier Rathan-Mayes of Scarborough, Ont., led all players in scoring with nine points in the first ten minutes.
The game hit a fever-pitch in the second quarter as both teams tried to push the pace. Back and forth they went, trading baskets throughout.
Hamilton was forced to call a timeout with 6:06 left before halftime after the Rattles' Negus Webster-Chan knocked down back-to-back threes to give Saskatchewan a 34-30 lead, capping an 8-0 run for the home team.
The Rattlers continued to apply pressure thanks to the smooth shooting of Webster-Chan who knocked down two more three-balls to increase the Saskatchewan lead to eight points, forcing another Hamilton timeout with 3:31 remaining in the second quarter. The hometown team took a 48-41 lead into the break.
With just 20 minutes of basketball between the two teams and a first-ever title, the intensity hit a different level in the third quarter. Hamilton regrouped in the locker room to come out on a 9-2 run to tie the game at 50. But the Rattlers had an answer – an electrifying slam by Shane Osayande brought the crowd to its feet as Saskatchewan took a 62-53 lead.
While the Honey Badgers were able to close the lead to eight points midway through the fourth quarter, that was as close as they'd get.
The crowd stood and cheered wildly as the time ticked down inside the Sasktel Centre, many waving rally towels and saluting their champions.
Michael Linklater goes out on top
Hometown basketball hero, Michael Linklater, took the court for the final time in his playing career on Sunday.
Linklater, who moved to Saskatoon when he was 10, has been a key figure in the city and province's basketball scene for years. He announced his decision to retire before championship weekend.
When Linklater entered the game with 1:48 left before halftime the fans rose to their feet and applauded endlessly. Linklater was also part of the University of Saskatchewan team that won the national championship in 2010 with Jockims coaching.
"It's a phenomenal feeling to go out with a championship. But really it's these guys. These guys did it. And just to be part of this family has been amazing," Linklater said.
Humble to a fault, Linklater deflected the spotlight away from himself during the post-game press conference but did reveal the death of his father this past year and that he was thinking about him during today's championship.
"This past year we lost my father. He was a big supporter of me. My mother was in the stands today. When I won that university championship they were both in the stands to support," Linklater said.
"My mother was here in her physical form and I know my father was here in his spirit form.
1st season success, future expansion plans
Commissioner of the league Mike Morreale says the championship weekend in Saskatoon was a success, culminating in a magical finish at Sasktel Centre on Sunday night.
"When you plan these things you have no idea what's going to happen," he said. "Couldn't have written a better script."
Morreale says there were challenges in the inaugural season and many people who thought they would fail. But now after an successful finish all he's doing is looking forward and looking to expand.
"It was a fantastic atmosphere today. It played out like we wrote the script. The crowd was amazing. If this is the first one, I think we're onto something here," Morreale said.
"I'm happy for basketball in Canada. I wave a Canadian flag every single day. That's what I do."
Currently there are six teams in the league across the country. Morreale says they're already looking at adding another team for next season, with more expansion planned in the future.
"One team for 2020 is what we're banking on now, but I have a list of 13 potential teams across the country. A lot of new markets – Winnipeg, Vancouver, Red Deer, Calgary, Quebec, Ottawa, Maritimes. The plan was always to grow this and then have local ownership."