TORONTO â€” During an early-season video session, the Ryerson Rams sat down to study the final few minutes of Michael Jordan’s last game as a Bull.
It was Game 6 of the 1998 NBA finals against Utah. A sweat-soaked Jordan was running on fumes. His shots weren’t falling. But Chicago’s confidence stood strong. And over a final few thrilling seconds, Jordan stole the ball off Karl Malone, beat Bryon Russell with a deadly cross-over and scored with five seconds to play. The Bulls won the title.
That video session resonated with the Rams, who hope to make history this weekend by winning Ryerson’s first Canadian university title in any sport.
“You never saw the (Bulls) get down, you never saw them stop shooting the ball,” said Rams guard Ammanuel Diressa. “Every play, kept trying to attack, kept trying to attack. And then in the end (Jordan) hits the game winner. It just shows the type of mentality you have to have to win.”
That mentality â€” a sense of composure and unbreakable confidence, as Diressa described it â€” has come to define the Rams down the stretch of this season. In big wins over Ottawa and perennial powerhouse Carleton last weekend, Ryerson roared back from fourth-quarter deficits to win their second-consecutive OUA title.
“This year our team is a lot better in big situations. We’re resilient,” Diressa said. “Even those last two games we played, we made a lot of mistakes down the stretch, but no one is ever down, no one ever lets that affect the next play. A player might make a turnover, but then the next play he gets a stop and makes a shot.”
The Rams scored a colossal 32 points on Carleton in the fourth quarter last Saturday, on the Ravens’ home court.
“That’s the thing about our team right now is we’re so confident in each other,” said fifth-year guard Adika Peter-McNeilly, the first first-team all-Canadian in Rams history. “That is what’s so special about this group, the chemistry and the confidence.
“Once we looked at Carleton as a team we’re able to beat, that’s when we were able to beat them. I think this past weekend, beating Ottawa and beating Carleton, it just gives us a little motivation that we can do it again. This is not done yet.”
Ryerson, who went 17-2 in the regular season, are the two-time defending national bronze medallists, and earned the No. 1 seed with their OUA title. Carleton went 19-0 before their loss to the Rams, and are the No. 2 seed.
Coach Roy Rana, who took over a team in 2009 that was mired in mediocrity â€” the Rams went a woeful 38-115 before his arrival â€” speaks fondly about a “special” group of players, particularly his back court of Diressa and Peter-McNeilly.
“Together they form the best back court in the country,” Rana said.
Diressa played for Rana at Eastern Commerce high school â€” “he was a short pudgy kid, I never thought he would be anything” â€” and then struggled for two seasons at Tennessee Tech before transferring to Ryerson last season.
“Last year had flashes where he was very good, but very inconsistent. But this year he’s arguably the best guard in the country,” Rana said. “I’ve coached a lot of guards and he has more natural gifts, more skill than maybe any guard I’ve coached, and that includes multiple guards in the NBA. He’s that talented.”
“That’s an honour for him to say something like that because he’s coached a lot of great guards,” said Diressa, a business management student.
Rana pushes the six-foot-five guard, he said, harder than the others.
“I get in his (face), but he’s the first one in my office on Monday morning and we’re watching film and we’re having a laugh, so we’ve just developed this really beautiful relationship,” Rana said. “Bright kid, an amazing story. Grew up in Regent Park. So he’s a lot about Toronto basketball, a perfect fit for Ryerson.”
“(Rana) wants me to get ready for the next level,” Diressa said of the tough love. “We might butt heads, I might get mad at something in the moment but I know afterwards it’s in my best interest.”
Peter-McNeilly is the Rams’ captain and a fifth-year senior, and said it will be a bittersweet moment when the final buzzer sounds on his college career.
“Knowing it’s the last time I’m actually going through it, last time I’ll be travelling with the team, you just want to do a little bit more, and cherish it a lot more,” said the 23-year-old sociology student.
The ultimate would be a national title.
“It would be amazing,” Peter-McNeilly said. “I wanted to come to Ryerson and make it a better place, I wanted to make some history, and if I could do that, it would help people coming in next year and the years after. They could say ‘These guys did it, anything’s possible.’ Ryerson could become the next powerhouse.”
“It would feel really good because there have been some great players here like Aaron (Best), Jahmal (Jones) who set the platform for us,” Diressa added. “A lot of people in the past weren’t able to (win). If we were able to do that, it would mean so much to this school, a lot to the guys on this team, and to the coaches who’ve been able to change this program, build it to where it is now.”
The Rams open Thursday’s tournament in Halifax against No. 8 St. Mary’s. A victory will put them through to Saturday’s semifinals.
The Carleton Ravens are the six-time defending champions, and have won the W.P. McGee Trophy 12 times, more than any other school in history.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press