Honey Badgers set up Toronto-Hamilton CEBL final as Niagara River Lions bounced


Published August 12, 2022 at 11:51 pm

Caleb Agada, Jeremiah Tilmon Jr. and Christian Vital, et al., have led another Hamilton team into a league final — which will be against a Toronto foe that has an erstwhile Raptor running point.

The Hamilton Honey Badgers will try to stick to and slow down the Scarborough Shooting Stars and lead guard Jalen Harris in the Canadian Elite Basketball League championship game in Ottawa on Sunday (3:30 p.m., CBC). Hamilton subsisted on second-half scoring by Mississauga native Aaron Best to scrape by the host Ottawa BlackJacks 76-72 in the semifinal at TD Place Arena on Friday night, after the Harris-led Shooting Stars outran the Niagara River Lions 93-81 in the early game.

The Honey Badgers, who finished first in the regular season, did not go ahead for good until the last play of the third quarter. In the Elam Ending phase, their margin shrunk to one as Ottawa fed off a home crowd’s energy. But a well-run dribble-weave set freed sixth man of the year Koby McEwen for a restorative three-pointer, and moments later Tilmon’s pass teed up Best for a dagger triple to pull Hamilton to within one point of the target score.

“When it comes down to those situations, a lot of us have been battle-tested and we have a lot of dogs in our team too,” said McEwen, who had 15 points and a team-most nine rebounds. “We don’t accept defeat no matter what the score or how much we’re down.”

Agada sank the Elam Ender free throw on his second shot and made a “ssssshhhh” motion toward the stands. The Burlington native who was won the the CEBL Canadian player of the year, was facing his former coach at the University of Ottawa, BlackJacks bench boss James Derouin.

(Under CEBL rules, teams to play to reach a target score rather than to the final buzzer, in order to eliminate intentional fouling.)

Vital (16 points, seven rebounds) led the way offensively. Best, a lefthanded wing, got all 14 of his points in the second half. Tilmon had 12 and five assists out of his forward position, sharing the team lead in dimes with Agada.

Zena Edosomwan had 14 points to top Ottawa.

Big ‘hurt’ for River Lions

The St. Catharines-based River Lions were down by only four points entering the fourth quarter against Harris-led Scarborough. However, with Harris (22 points, eight rebounds and six assists) pushing the pace and distributing to Kameron Chatman (22 points) and Kassius Roberton (19), the Shooting Stars pulled away with a decisive 12-2 run.

“In the first half we did a good job on (Harris and Robertson),” said Niagara head coach Victor Raso, who is a Hamilton native. “If you allow that type of talent to feel good about themselves or feel like they have a chance, then they can really hurt you.”

Harris got into 13 games with the Toronto Raptors in 2020-21 — and even went off for 31 points one night in Dallas — before being suspended from the NBA for violating terms of its anti-drug program. The six-foot-five guard played in Italy last season, and is eligible for NBA reinstatement this season.

River Lions forward EJ Onu, the CEBL defensive player of the year scored a game-high 26 points on just 10 shots from the floor and hit 5-of-5 on triples. Guard Khalid Ahmad, the CEBL most valuable player, hooped 23 points and had six assists to match Harris’s counting stats, but the extra physical attention from Scarborough kept him to 39 per cent effective shooting.

Milton native Kyle Alexander, a 6-foot-10 forward who plays for Valencia in the top league in Spain, also helped Scarborough close off Niagara’s low-post scoring down the stretch.

The River Lions were CEBL runners-up in 2021.

The Honey Badgers’ advancement means all four Hamilton pro teams have reached league finals in the last nine months. But only one has finished off with a championship.

In December, soccer’s Forge FC were runners-up in the Canadian Premier League, and football’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats lost the Grey Cup in an overtime game against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

In June, the Hamilton Bulldogs won the Ontario Hockey League championship for the second time in the league’s last three completed seasons. They were also the runner-up in the Memorial Cup tournament, losing in the final against the host Saint John Sea Dogs.

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