Live fast, die young. It’s true for sports, too. A short 16 days after it began, the Canadian Elite Basketball League’s (CEBL) Summer Series is over. After the regular season, the CEBL held the playoffs over a period of four days. Six teams, five games, one champion. The Edmonton Stingers, led by final MVP Xavier Moon, rolled through the competition to win the Summer Series championship.
A year ago, the Hamilton Honey Badgers topped the Niagara River Lions 104-103 in a playoff heartbreaker. Much changed heading into this year, but the playoff result between the two teams remained the same. Hamilton won 85-83 as Niagara made up a 18-point deficit early in the fourth quarter only to fall short in the Elam Ending. That this year’s Hamilton roster was populated by all new players made the rivalry game strange for Niagara’s six returners.
“They don’t have the same disdain for us as last year’s team had, and it’s hard to go out there and be like, ‘oh, I hate these guys’ when it’s guys that you never really played against before.” River Lions’ Trae Bell-Haynes said.
For Bell-Haynes, the game was bittersweet. He’s young and already a star, and his control of the court is skyrocketing. His nickname is Baby Fundamental, named after Tim Duncan — also because he looks so young — and fittingly Bell-Haynes was spectacular against Hamilton. He battled into the paint at will and led Niagara’s fourth-quarter comeback, finishing with a game-high 23 points. Bell-Haynes is off now to the BBL, Germany’s top professional league. He’s only 24-years-old, so keep your eyes peeled to enjoy his bright future.
As predicted in Sportsnet’s regular season recap, it was one of the star guards, either Niagara’s Bell-Haynes or Hamilton’s leader, Brianté Weber, to hit the Elam Ending winner. Weber finished the game driving full-court with his strong right hand before banking a floater off the glass.
In the other quarter-final, the Ottawa Blackjacks used a dominant second quarter to build a lead over the Guelph Nighthawks and never looked back. Led by Canadian stars Tommy Scrubb and Olivier Hanlan, the Blackjacks played the type of solid, unimpeachable team defence that erases opponents’ strengths. Ottawa established themselves as a cohesive and veteran group that wouldn’t beat itself heading into the semi-final.
In the semi-final between Hamilton and the Fraser Valley Bandits, the Honey Badger’s zone troubled the Bandits all night. Fraser Valley found efficient shots only in transition, while Hamilton’s Jean-Victor Mukama hit step-backs, rose for dunks in the pick-and-roll, and romped to a game-high 24 points. One of the Bandits’ most important players, Marcus Capers, was ejected early for arguing with a referee. Fraser Valley kept the game competitive, though Hamilton led 73-67 in a game to 76. The game seemed over. But then on several consecutive possessions Hamilton chased deep triples in attempts to end the game early. The Honey Badgers forgot to pass and play as a team. The hero ball doomed Hamilton, and Fraser Valley’s Oluseyi Ashaolu scored his only four points of the game in consecutive twisting layups to send the unheralded Bandits to the championship.
Between the Edmonton Stingers and Ottawa Blackjacks, Edmonton jumped out to an early lead which it never relinquished. The Stingers were forceful in attacking the rim and waltzing to the paint with hard, straight-line drives. When Ottawa rotated to take away shots at the rim, Edmonton kicked the ball to the perimeter and feasted on open triples, shooting 9-of-24 on the night, good for 37.5 percent. Mathieu Kamba had an especially large share of running the offence, whether shooting the ball from deep or euro-stepping around defenders in transition. He finished with a game-high 26 points.
On defence, Edmonton, as have so many teams in this tournament, employed a series of zones to frustrate its opponent. Edmonton forced Ottawa to attack stationary players, and the Blackjacks committed a number of offensive fouls trying to create space that didn’t exist. Jordan Baker took several charges as Ottawa players tried to power through his body.
Moon was quiet for much of the contest, letting Baker and Kamba run the offence. He stepped up when his team needed him, though; as soon as the Stingers were within target of the Elam score, Moon nailed a smooth pull-up triple to shut the door on any hopes of a comeback.
And so the stage was set for Edmonton and Fraser Valley, the league’s top two seeds and both with first-round byes, to meet in the CEBL final. Though Edmonton’s dominance has been apparent throughout the tournament, Fraser Valley was the only team to have handed Edmonton a loss during the Summer Series.
— CEBL (@CEBLeague) August 8, 2020
Moon was the sun and the stars in the galaxy for the Stingers in the last game of the brief CEBL season. His control of the ball and the other players on the court is unmatched within the CEBL. When Moon touched the ball, good things happened for Edmonton on the offensive end. Fraser Valley, who won games by forcing opponents away from strengths, and turning games into mudfests, tried to keep the ball out of Moon’s hands. Knowing that would be the case, the Stingers and head coach Jermaine Small focused on poise and composure in a team meeting the night before the game.
Early on, Canadian Junior Cadougan was given the task of outmuscling Moon and denying him the ball. But Moon used that to his advantage, jetting away from a screen and breaking Cadougan’s ankles on the way to a layup. It wasn’t Moon’s only ankle-breaker on the day, as like any good jiu-jitsu artist, he used his opponents’ strength against them.
“Everybody tries to play aggressive, so I know if I can use my speed, once I get space, then I can just create whatever I want to,” Moon explained. “I don’t look at it as, they’re trying to rough me up a little bit, but I look at it as me trying to get away from them. And once I create that space, they’re pretty much at a disadvantage.”
— CEBL (@CEBLeague) August 9, 2020
Moon hit everything he threw at the rim. He connected on pull-ups from every angle, from behind the arc or in the mid-range.
Fraser Valley did an excellent job limiting Edmonton’s other threats. Baker had trouble forcing the issue against the Bandits’ small but strong post defenders. He was frustrated for much of the game, which was ironic for a player who’s used to being the one frustrating others. Instead of Baker or star center Travis Daniels, Edmonton turned to bench scorer Brody Clarke, who used his size and touch to punish the Bandits for playing four guards at a time. Clarke finished with 14 points for Edmonton.
“They’ve got big strong guards, but we’ve got big strong bigs,” Small said.
While the Stingers dominated in the paint, outscoring the Bandits 44-14 there, Fraser Valley launched far more threes, as Jahenns Manigat and company used the long ball to stay in the game. As against Hamilton, Fraser Valley stayed competitive despite being outplayed, waiting for the late-game push.
It didn’t come. The Bandits clawed within five points in the fourth quarter, but as it happened so many times earlier in the Summer Series, Moon delivered the knockout punch. Behind his blazing speed, he frequently penetrated the middle and reached the free throw line, leaping straight up over his defender’s outstretched arms, and swishing the hanging jumper.
Moon keyed a late run for the Stingers, as they turned a 65-60 contest into a 90-73 blowout. It was clear that he saved himself for winning time, and he turned it on late. In the anticlimactic Elam Ending, Moon easily broke Fraser Valley’s full court press and caught the Bandits reaching twice, scoring the final four points on free throws. He finished with 31 points, the most scored by any player in a Summer Series game. It only took him 14 shots.
The CEBL 2020 season is now done, and it barely lasted more than two weeks. The season flew by almost as quickly as Moon in transition. There’s a bright future, though, for the Canadian league that is now only two years old. The top-end Canadian talent in the CEBL only improved from 2019 to 2020, despite the challenges facing the league. The league will continue to grow as commissioner Mike Morreale broadens the CEBL’s appeal and connections to the Canadian basketball community. Though the 2020 CEBL season lived fast and died young, expect a long and fruitful life for the CEBL itself.
— CEBL (@CEBLeague) August 9, 2020