BURLINGTON, Ont. – As part of the OUA’s involvement in the Bell Let’s Talk initiative, each member school has hosted game(s) to join the conversation, and as Bell Let’s Talk Day itself comes around, it is a key northern battle – featuring the Laurentian Voyageurs and Nipissing Lakers – that will highlight the January 31st schedule, as the men’s and women’s hoopsters will take to the hardwood for a pair of tough late-season matchups.
Not only do these two games represent key matchups on their own, but also in the grander scheme of the 705 Challenge Cup. The two schools have split the first eight matches of the series (4-4), with Wednesday’s tilts kicking off a stretch of six games in four nights that will decide the eventual champs. And when looking ahead to what is in store on Wednesday, it’s anyone’s game.
Last season, both the Nipissing and Laurentian men’s squads finished with a 9-10 record, falling just below the .500 mark, and while the Lakers have put up a similar record thus far in 2017-18, the Voyageurs have reached impressive new heights, to the tune of a 15-2 record and a national ranking.
Helping Laurentian carve out their spot among the U SPORTS elite is reigning Rookie of the Year, Kadre Gray. Since bursting onto the scene in his freshman season, Gray has managed to find another level still, as the three-time OUA Male Athlete of the Week has taken the conference by storm. Gray sits second in the OUA in scoring, pouring in 24.1 PPG, while also ranking fifth in rebounding (8.6 RPG), and first in passing (6.4 APG).
The diverse play of the second year player has been a massive spark for the Voyageurs’ impressive ranks this season. As a unit, the No. 7 ranked crew ranks in the top five in those same three aforementioned categories, and beyond that, they have been able to shoot the ball well from all over the floor. But while Laurentian’s 85.5 PPG rank second in the OUA, Nipissing’s capable eighth-ranked defense will surely play a factor in the game’s final outcome, just as it has in some of the Lakers’ biggest wins this season.
Despite their sub-.500 record, Nipissing has remained a talented competitor, especially outside of their own hotly-contested division. The Lakers have brought home tough wins against the likes of Western, Laurier, and Waterloo – who sit second, third, and fifth in the OUA West Division, respectively – and will look to earn their biggest win of the season against their northern combatants.
For the Lakers to find success, they’ll turn to the dynamic duo of Marcus Lewis and Jaaden Lewis, who have combined for just shy of 33 PPG this season. Marcus is also a force on the boards, as he leads the Lakers with eight per contest, and he’ll need to be in fine form, along with the rest of his teammates, to secure the edge on the glass against Gray and the Voyageurs – something they have been able to accomplish against much of their competition thus far this season.
Prior to the men’s tilt, the women’s teams will go toe-to-toe to open the Bell Let’s Talk Day schedule, and while both teams are struggling to find their footing this season, ranking in the bottom two of the OUA East Division, fans will be in for a competitive tilt between these northern rivals; both of whom will be looking to bring home a big win for their respective schools.
Laurentian swept the season series a year ago, and will rely on leading scorers Emily Tinnes (12.4 PPG) and L’Ashante Henry (11.6 PPG) to help them earn their sixth win in the teams’ last seven meetings overall. Not only can this talented pair be a difference-maker at the offensive end, but on defense as well, as they both average north of two steals per contest, with the former sitting in the top five in the OUA (2.7 STL/G).
If the Voyageurs want to find success beyond these two standouts, however, they will need to maintain their success at scoring in a variety of ways; most notably from beyond the arc and the charity stripe. Their overall shooting percentages from these respective areas sit in the top half of the conference, and as both teams leave something to be desired around the rim, the ability to score in different ways both within and beyond the paint may very well be a deciding factor in the eventual outcome.
Looking to stop the Voyageurs from earning their first win away from home on the season will be a balanced Lakers attack. Nipissing does not have a double-digit scorer on the roster, but the likes of Heidi Smith, Marla Corney, and Maeve Therriault can still wreak havoc on the opposition, while the diverse contributions from Alexe Galipeau-Wilson offensively, defensively, and on the glass will surely make the third-year guard one to watch in the final outcome of this closely-contested matchup.
While both of these games will ultimately play out on the court, their impact will also go well beyond the standings. Much of what can be taken away from these tilts will revolve around the surrounding conversations and the awareness being brought to mental health. And it is efforts like these, and the spotlight being placed on each of the Bell Let’s Talk games and events that help us end the stigma and demonstrate that we are all one team for mental health.
If you aren’t about to make the trek to North Bay, fans can catch all the action on January 31st, with the games taking place at 6:00pm and 8:00pm respectively, on OUA.tv, which is also available to stream on Apple TV, Amazon Fire, ROKU, and Android TV.