The friendly confines of the Ben Avery Gym have been even more welcoming than usual for the Laurentian Voyageurs men's basketball team this fall.
Kicking off their 2019-2020 OUA season with seven of their first nine matches at home, coach Shawn Swords and company have raced out to a record of 8-1, thanks in part to another double-header sweep, in Sudbury, this past weekend.
The Voyageurs toppled the visiting McMaster Marauders (#7) 97-85 on Friday, bouncing the Brock Badgers 99-86 on Saturday, ironically benefitting from an outstanding second quarter showing in both contests in carving out a little separation from their opponents.
Trailing 19-16 after ten minutes of play against the Marauders, the L.U. lads rode a 29-16 effort in the second quadrant to the win, with Kadre Gray (31 pts), Haround Mohamed (18), Jospeh Hlady (16) and Sam Ivey (10) leading the way offensively.
Jordan Henry (22) and Connor Gilmore (17) sparked the Mac attack against a stifling Voyageur defence that would see the homeside rack up 13 steals (vs five for McMaster), while the Marauders were forced into 18 turnovers (vs 12 for Laurentian).
On a weekend in which Kadre Gray surpassed the legendary Norm Hann on the all-time L.U. basketball scoring charts (Gray is now at 1755, breaking the previous mark of 1722 that has stood for Hann since 1993), the two-time national player of the year was back up to his old tricks facing Brock.
Gray netted 29 points, also leading the way with nine assists, while Joseph Hlady (16), Curtis Gordon (15), Sam Ivey (10) and Gaetan Chamand (10) chipped in nicely as well. Kascius Small-Martin (23) and Godsman Kwakwah (18) answered for the Badgers, who also received a solid contribution from former Lasalle Lancer Noah LaPierre.
Now in his third year with the Badgers, the Garson native chipped in with seven points in 26 minutes of playing time, going 1/5 from beyond the arc. As for the flow in the play of his team on the weekend, coach Swords saw far more positives than negatives.
"I don't think we started either game very well," he said. "The good thing was that we progressively got better as the game went on. I guess for both games, I liked the 30-minute stretch in the middle of the game, even if I didn't particularly like the first five minutes or the last five minutes of the game."
There is little doubt that the 2019-2020 version of the Laurentian roster allows Swords greater flexibility in terms of player movement, or more precisely, player movement without fear of a drop in the level of play.
"I think so far this year, we've tried to show that we have a little bit more depth than we've had in other years," noted Swords. "We've switched up who we've played at the guard spot, from game to game, and even on the inside, it's whoever is playing well is going to get the consistent minutes throughout the game."
"I think from the depth perspective, it has allowed us to try and play with more pace offensively," Swords added. "Guys don't have to worry about saving themselves for the fourth quarter or the end of the game, because we have guys that can come in and replace them."
"Even more importantly, I think, is the effect on the defensive end. It has allowed us to play with more intensity, greater ball pressure and help, and demand more effort at that end of the floor. Things become a lot easier offensively when you can get stops and get out and run and push the ball."
And though much has been made of the offensive attributes of Kadre Gray during his three years plus in northern Ontario, it might well be his versatility that is even more impressive, now that he draws constant attention for opposing defences.
"I think a lot of that is him trusting his teammates," said Swords. "He's obviously always going to be a great scorer and a very good shooter. It's now about morphing his game to understanding what is open, what the defence is giving him and taking advantage of it."
"There are still moments of the game where we need him to score, because he is the best player in the country, but I think this year, he's not reverting to that as early, he's really picking his spots. He's making everyone around him better."
The Voyageurs close out their first half of the schedule with their toughest road trip to date, facing both the nationally ranked Carleton Ravens (#1) and the Ottawa Gee Gees (#3) in the nation's capital this coming weekend.