It was a tough start to the season for the Western Mustangs men's basketball team.
With three straight losses to kick off the 2016–17 campaign, the young and inexperienced Mustangs looked to be on the verge of a major rebuilding year.
The Mustangs are, indeed, young. With only one fourth-year player on the team, the Mustangs lack the college basketball experience of the nation's top contenders this season.
But after a 53–51 win over Lakehead University on Friday night, the Mustangs' record of 1–3 is better than it appears.
Two of those losses — their season opening loss to the University of Guelph and their loss to Laurentian University on Nov. 11 — saw the Mustangs blow big leads.
An 18-point lead against Guelph in the second quarter evaporated as the Gryphons surged back with a 29–14 third quarter to put the game out of reach for the Mustangs. The Mustangs lost that game 83–81.
Against Laurentian, the Mustangs again had a large 16-point lead in the second quarter vanish en route to a 77–73 loss to the Voyageurs.
For Eric McDonald, Mustangs co-captain and the only fourth-year player on the roster, the problems with late-game execution come from a lack of focus and discipline.
“It’s all about finishing the games and focusing in from the start," McDonald said. "We’re doing little things throughout the game that shouldn’t make it a close game in the third and fourth quarters."
"There’s so many little things that we can fix, and we will," he added. "We shouldn’t be in such a bad spot by those third and fourth quarters, but we just need to want it more.”
After those two close and hard-fought losses, the Mustangs hit rock bottom with a disheartening 71–52 loss to Nipissing University on Nov. 12.
For Mustangs head coach Brad Campbell, his squad needs to avoid having bad quarters like they had in their losses to Guelph and Laurentian if they want to move forward and have success this season.
"We have definitely had some poor quarters which have cost us," Campbell said. "Focus and discipline at times have been an issue. Some of that I am sure can be directly related to our youth and how many new players we have on our roster."
Despite the early struggles, the Mustangs are still confident in their inexperienced, if not talented, team.
"We’re doing a decent job of being optimistic," said Alex Coote, the Mustangs' other co-captain. "Those first two games were so close and we could’ve been 2–0 going into that Nipissing game and then that Nipissing game is a completely different story. We still realize the talent we have on this team and realize we’re young and still pretty inexperienced but we’re optimistic about the way things can go.”
The Mustangs won their first game of the season on Friday night, taking down the Lakehead Thunderwolves 53–51. The Mustangs got solid scoring from a number of their young players.
Second-year guard Nik Farkic led Western with 15 points and 16 rebounds. Fellow second-year Eriq Jenkins scored 11 while first-year Omar Shiddo scored eight points.
Coming off the bench, second-year forward Ian Smart added eight points as the Mustangs finally closed out a game late for the victory.
The win was even sweeter as the Thunderwolves eliminated the Mustangs last season in the Ontario University Athletics playoffs.
But more than the win, and the revenge for that tough 60–58 playoff loss last year to Lakehead, is the fact that the Mustangs now know what it takes to win in the OUA.