On Jan. 15, a dark cloud of shock and panic hung over the Western Mustangs men's basketball program. After losing to the then-winless Algoma Thunderbirds in an upset of epic proportions, the Mustangs were reeling, grasping for any possible way to salvage a season that was teetering on the brink of disaster.
Head coach Brad Campbell confronted his team and gave them a choice: either continue down the losing path and have one of the most talented senior classes in program history go out with a whimper, or turn things around and go on a run.
Fast forward to this past Saturday at Alumni Hall, where the Mustangs took down the Laurentian Voyageurs 61–50 for their fourth straight win.
Now 8–7 on the season, the Mustangs are only a game back of the Windsor Lancers for the top spot in the Ontario University Athletics west division.
Since that Algoma loss, the Mustangs are 5–1, including two statement wins over the Brock Badgers and division rival Laurier Golden Hawks. With five games remaining on the season, the Mustangs have a realistic shot at winning out and finishing the season at 13–7.
On Saturday night, the Mustangs struggled to shoot and lost the battle in the rebounding department. And yet, as this team has done time and time again over the last six games, they found a way to win.
With four straight wins, the Mustangs are peaking at the perfect time.
"It's huge to be peaking near the end of the season," said fifth-year senior Tony Spiridis, who led all scorers on Saturday with 20 points. "We knew we had a tough schedule early in the season, so we were really looking forward to the new year to string together some wins."
For the first time all season, the Mustangs won despite a less-than-stellar performance from Greg Morrow, the top scorer in the province. Morrow had 13 points on the night, his lowest output of the season.
With Morrow struggling, his fellow Mustangs had to show up. Spiridis and Peter Scholtes did just that, carrying the team on their backs and pushing the Mustangs to above .500 for the first time since Nov. 22.
Along with the 20 points from Spiridis, Scholtes added 19 points and 10 rebounds, recording his first double-double of the season.
"Pete [Scholtes] played like a beast tonight, which was huge for us," said Spiridis. "We rely heavily on Greg [Morrow] and he knows that so it's good to get a win with Pete and I contributing more than usual. Greg attracts a lot of attention and Laurentian doubled him all night, which is why Pete and I were able to get some easy baskets."
On Friday night, the Mustangs took on the Nipissing Lakers, winning 75–43. Offensively, they were firing on all cylinders, shooting 51.6 per cent from the field with 12 points coming off the bench. It was as comfortable a win as they've had all year.
On Saturday, however, the Mustangs were forced to grind out the win. Shooting a paltry 35.5 per cent meant the Mustangs had to turn to their defence to take down Laurentian. Their defence came through, as the Voyageurs had only 48 field goal attempts all night.
The Mustangs forced Laurentian to settle for quick three-point attempts and pressured them into turning the ball over 18 times.
"If we continue to play aggressively on the defensive end and fight for 50/50 balls, we should give ourselves a great chance at coming away with a win against any team," said Spiridis.
Moving forward, the Mustangs have a real shot at extending their win streak.
They hit the road on Feb. 12 to take on rival Queen's in Kingston. The Gaels are a quality team, at 9–5 this season.
Then it's down to Toronto on Feb. 13 where they face off with a struggling York Lions team that has lost seven games in a row.
The Mustangs also have two home dates later in the month with the 9–6 Windsor Lancers and the 7–6 Lakehead Thunderwolves.
Queen's and Windsor are tough games that are far from guaranteed wins. Yet if the Mustangs can continue to be dominant on the defensive side of the ball while developing offensively into a team that can consistently shoot the three-pointer and have solid scoring from the bench, they'll have a real chance at sweeping their February schedule.
Campbell gave his team the option to either let their season spiral out of control or come together as a team and end the season on a high note. The Mustangs chose the latter and are looking more and more like a team that could do some damage when the playoffs arrive.