After an exciting first half to the season, both the men’s and women’s basketball programs will kick off the new year with the fifth annual ‘Paint the Meridian Red’ games hosted by the Meridian Centre. While both teams will play the York Lions this Wednesday to officially begin the second half of the season, the first home game will be played in downtown St. Catharines on Saturday night.
It has been a bit of a rocky road for the men’s program thus far, although given the copious amount of change the program has seen in the last six months it is to be expected. The women’s team, however, is currently the ninth best team in the country and have gotten out to an OUA Central-best 9-1 record.
The Lions women’s team is currently 6-6, so barring some post-Christmas rust (which is very possible), the Badgers should vault to 10-1, which would put them in a tie with the 2015-16 team for best start in program history. A Meridian Centre victory would give this years’ Badgers the edge.
Head coach Mike Rao will surely receive some OUA Coach of the Year votes come seasons’ end, but regardless of the outcome, the job he has done in just his second year with the program is impressive.
The Badgers have been led for the latter half of the decade by Melissa Tatti, who is once again all over the OUA leaderboard this season (fifth in scoring, first in assists, third in steals, second in minutes, second in FT percentage).
The addition of 6’3 forward Sam Keltos has also been a big reason for the Badgers first-half success. The St. Catharines native is averaging over 13 points and eight rebounds this season, and has provided an inside-outside scoring presence that the Badgers did not have last year. The length of Keltos has also helped a previously undersized team on the defensive end, as has second-year centre Eden Ferraro, who has been Rao’s fifth starter for most of the season.
But perhaps the biggest addition to the 2019-20 Badgers has been internal: fourth-year wing Jessica Morris has turned into a potential All-Star and has cemented herself into Rao’s starting and closing lineup. Morris upped her scoring numbers from just 3.5 points a season ago to 14.2, good enough for second highest on the team. She has set a new career high in rebounds (14) and in points twice in three games (19, 25). Morris’ shooting splits currently sit at 46/40/76, from the field, three point range, and the free throw line, respectively. While the coveted 50/40/90 club may be a bit out of reach, Morris’ splits are elite for the OUA. At just 5’8, Morris is the second highest rebounder on the team with almost seven a game and has proven to be an above average perimeter defender.
With Tatti, Morris, Keltos and third-year guard Kristin Gallant (who is averaging 10 points, five rebounds and three assists), Rao has a solid foursome that is among the best in the OUA.
It should be a fun night and a great way to kick off the new year. The Badgers spoiled Toronto’s home opener earlier in October. The Blues sit near the OUA’s basement at 2-8, so the fans should be in for a fun game.
The men’s team has not been .500 at the break since 2014-15, which was also the last time the team finished the season with a losing record. The Badgers have been led by rookie head coach Willy Manigat, who has done a better job than his record shows. Three of the Badgers’ losses have come by one, two and four points, all of which his team shot poorly from the free throw line.
The Badgers have also been fairly banged up in the first half: fifth-year guard Emmanuel Owotooah — who transferred from Manigat’s alma mater of Carleton — has yet to play in a regular season game due to a fractured right foot. Fifth-year centre Ryan Cooper is out for the season as he recovers from right foot surgery as well. The latter has hurt the Badgers up front, seeing as the 6’9 Cooper is the Badgers biggest player. Manigat has had to rely on Ryan’s younger brother, Kyle (who is not nearly as tall or experienced) and Mitch Saunders, who has been up and down so far this year, as his backup bigs.
Much like the women’s team, the men’s team has a solid four of Tyler Brown, Daniel Cayer, Kascius Small-Martin and Godsman Kwakwah. In this Brown and Cayer’s final season, Brown leads the team in scoring and assists, including a career-high 30 earlier this season. Cayer is averaging over 11 points and 11 rebounds and should be in consideration for Defensive Player of the Year come seasons’ end.
Small-Martin finished the first half strong and should be the Badgers go-to perimeter scorer the rest of the way. Kwakwah, who redshirted last year, has looked like the Badgers best player at times but has also been rather quiet at others. Nevertheless, the Badgers are getting roughly 60 points between the four who are clearly the most important players on the team.
Manigat has also searched for a fifth player to pair with the aforementioned four. Rookie guard Aaron Golbourne has become Manigat’s fifth starter and is an absolute pest on the defensive end; he usually matches up with the opponent’s best ball handler and has fared quite well. Golbourne has struggled from deep (an ugly 18.5 percent), though, and has played far less than his fellow starters. Sometimes it’s been Golbourne out to close the game, other times it’s been junior guard Noah LaPierre, who finished the first half on a high note with a new career-high in late November.
The Varsity Blues currently sit at 4-6 and beat Brock by four back in October. The men will play after the women on Saturday, so this should be a good nightcap after what could quickly become a blowout in the women’s game.
Tickets can be purchased at gobadgers.ca