Antigonish, NS - The inaugural 'Coach K Challenge' exhibition game was a victory for the hometown X-Men over the Acadia Axemen by a 99-76 margin. The victory marked career win #919 for veteran X-Men head coach Steve Konchalski as he closes out his 46-year coaching career at StFX with 1495 career games.
Moving forward, the Coach K Challenge will feature one game between the Acadia Axemen and StFX X-Men on an annual basis as both schools are near and dear to Steve's heart.
Coach K's players gave him a fine send-off with a polished performance against a young and improved Acadia Axemen team.
The first AUS exhibition game played in just under one year – and likely the only one in the country during the 2020-21 season – understandably saw both teams get off to slow starts.
First Half Action
Antoine Vernon (Hamilton, ON) was the first player to find the basket at 2:36 of the opening stanza. Azaro Roker (Nassau, Bahamas) showed no signs of nerves as he dominated the paint as he has done over the last number of years before the X players finally found their scoring touch.
Coach Konchalski showed his tactical expertise as he went to the bench early and was rewarded with strong play and quick baskets by both Michael Utsalo (Brampton, ON) and Antigonish, NS native Dondre Reddick. Unfortunately, Utsalo took a hard fall when competing for a rebound and left the game with a knee injury.
With momentum now in favour of the X-Men, Vernon hit his first three and capped a nine-point run by StFX to take an early 13-5 lead. Axemen head coach Kevin Duffie called for timeout and following the pause, composure improved on both ends of the court.
As both teams found their feet the three-point shooting improved and there were a number of great back and forth shooting spells. A Justin Andrew (Hamilton, ON) three was quickly answered by Alex Muise (Halifax, NS) but, not to be outdone, Andrew hit another from beyond the arc for good measure.
Ryan Munro (Timberlea, NS) drained a three-pointer to pull Acadia to within seven points. The X-Men bench continued its fine play with Bennett Grumbach (Toronto, ON) scoring five points in the last minute to extend the lead once again. He ended the opening quarter with a three-pointer as the X-Men led 28-18.
The second quarter saw Acadia start as the more urgent side, but the X-Men were able to keep the visitors at bay. Tim Mununga (Burlington, ON) provided good balance in the paint for Acadia and did an effective job in neutralizing the dominance of Roker.
Axemen's Eli Krausher (Halifax, NS) continued his fine play into the second half, playing well on the defensive end and scoring timely buckets. First year X-Men forward Jeremiah Usiosefe (Hamilton, ON) found his form early in the quarter; however fellow rookie, Thomas MacDonald (Rothesay, NB) matched him stride for stride.
Acadia continued their strong as they began to get better looks at the basket, but unfortunately for the Axemen, the shots did not fall with the same consistency as the X-Men's. Usiosefe five consecutive points and great work in the paint extended the StFX lead to 13 midway through the second quarter.
It seemed at times that Acadia could start to whittle down the lead, such as when Krausher hit a nice three-point shot, but it was quickly matched by Jamie White (Saint John, NB) who drained a tray for the X-Men.
The half ended with a flourish with two fast break points by Gatluak James (Brantford, ON) off a nice pass by Andrew to increase the advantage. StFX went into the locker room at halftime with a 49-33 lead.
X-Men extend lead in second half
The X-Men sprinted out of the break as Avan Nava (Mississauga, ON), who had a quiet first-half, opened his scoring account to score the first four points and made a great defensive play to set the tone for the home side.
Vernon was once again using his experience to set the tone and tempo for another effective quarter of basketball for the X-Men. The Axemen were held scoreless in the quarter until Jack Tilly scored three minutes in.
Acadia went to the bench but X continued to move the ball well and Roker was able to reassert his dominance in the paint. Joe Frenette (Mount Uniacke, NS) continued his good work from the first half into the second, including a nice defensive move that lead to a steal and quickly moved down court for two fast-break points.
About half way through the quarter the game broke up somewhat with both teams making some mental mistakes. A three-pointer by Acadia's Ryan Munro (Timberlea, NS) cut the lead from 65-45 and led to a StFX timeout.
Out of the break Handy Disanka (Broussard, QC) went on a 6-0 run and hit a knock-down jumper, showed a great touch to put in a rebound before making It look easy one more time.
Krausher continued his fine form from distance with two consecutive threes as the third quarter drew to a close. While Acadia's shooting was improving, StFX's fine shooting form meant they could not cut into X's big lead. The score after three quarters of play 78-57 in favour of the home team.
While the result was in hand for the X-Men, to their credit the Axemen retained their composure and resilience to match X shot for shot in a closely contested fourth quarter.
Munro scored nine fourth quarter points for the Axemen and was a strong force throughout. Jamie White also distinguished himself with a number of key baskets and in the final minute, with the game won, took a charge to show the importance of playing a full 40-minute game.
Rowan Power continued to find the bottom of the net and not afraid to go to the paint and pulling in rebounds for his Axemen team.
With under six minutes, Munro hit another three to reduce the lead to 15 points but the Axemen would get no closer. The pick of the one-on-one battles in the final quarter was an intense one between Usiosefe and Power as they went down the game's home stretch.
Reddick continued his fine form for X in the fourth quarter, and his great slam dunk delighted the crowd in the game's final minutes. Roker and Andrew were substituted with two minutes remaining and the pair of fifth year graduating seniors received a warm and well-earned standing ovation from the crowd as Coach K made his final changes.
Thought the final quarter was a closer affair, 21-19 in favour of the X-Men, the Axemen could not close the gap and StFX took home the 99-76 victory.
Acadia's Munro led his squad in scoring with 15 points, while Krausher finished with 14 and Muise netted 13.
Usiosefe and Reddick each finished with 16 points apiece for the X-Men, while Grumbach scored 12 (including a trio of three-pointers). Roker – in his last game with the blue and white – put up a double-double effort with 11 points and 15 rebounds.
Both Roker and fellow senior Andrew were honoured pre-game by Coach K, along with Thomas Legallais who played the previous two seasons with the X-Men.
Konchalski also took time to honour his long-time assistant coaches Denton Anthony and Doc Ryan prior to tip-off.
Once the final whistle blew, however, it was time to shift the honours to the veteran head coach himself. The post-game ceremony was a fine tribute to the basketball career of Coach Konchalski.
Coach K honoured with post-game presentations
Acadia Athletic Director Kevin Dickie presented him with a shadow box of his time at Acadia, proudly remarking that Acadia "brought [Steve] to Canada," as he referred to his time as an athlete at the Wolfville, NS school.
Phil Currie, the Director of Atlantic University Sport, emphasized Konchalski's contribution to StFX and basketball in Atlantic Canada over the decades as he passed along a plaque with a picture of Coach K's 918th career victory and last game coached at the Halifax Scotiabank Centre where he spent many a playoff weekend over the years.
StFX President & Vice Chancellor, Dr. Andy Hakin, expressed his thanks to the loyalty and passion Coach K brought to the job over 46 years and ended with the lesson we can all learn from Coach: 'Follow your passion.' Coach K received a framed picture of the Saputo Centre main gymnasium and the very court named after him in 2017, Coach K Court.
StFX Director of Athletics & Recreation Leo MacPherson remarked that the word legend doesn't seem to do justice to what he's brought to the game. "In Steve, you didn't just get a coach, you got a friend and an advisor for life." He presented Coach K with a painting commissioned by Antigonish native, Bruce MacKinnon, renowned cartoonist with The Chronicle Herald, entitled 'Saint Stephen of Konchalski, Patron Saint of Basketball'. Coach K also received a game ball signed by all X-Men and Axemen athletes and coaches.
MacPherson also announced that the annual exhibition X-Men Invitational tournament held each year in October would now be known as the Coach K Invitational.
Finally, the legendary coach himself concluded the evening with his final thoughts. He began with a thank you to Acadia, the school he went to as a young 17year-old to play for the great Stu Aberdeen.
In 1975, Coach K came to Antigonish for an interview for the open men's basketball head coaching position with Father George Kehoe, and so began a 46 year journey in which he has coached and mentored hundreds of young players, who came from all over the world. He thanked members of the StFX administration for allowing him to practise his passion, including his first Athletic Director Father Kehoe, along with John 'Packy McFarland', Tom Kendall and Leo MacPherson.
Coach K remarked that he learned from legendary Canadian basketball coach Jack Donahue the importance of 'coaching people not players'. Coach K certainly learned the lesson well, one to which all his former players will certainly attest. He thanked the many student-athletes he had the opportunity to coach, remarking that he remembers every single one.
His final thank you was to his family – children Maria in Toronto, Julieanne (son-in-law Thomas, grandson Luther and dog Jackson) in Calgary, and son Christopher (daughter-in-law Vicki and grandson Francis) in Terrance, BC. And after receiving a bouquet of flowers from the Athletic Department, Coach K thanked 'the real MVP', his wife Charlene.
The celebrations for Coach K will continue throughout the month of March as his official retirement date is March 31st. StFX Athletics will continue to post daily congratulatory messages from alumni and basketball colleagues on our social media channels.
Fans, friends and alumni wishing to send Coach K a personal thank you or greeting can do so on our virtual wall at www.goxgo.ca/coachk or by tweeting or posting on Instagram using the hashtag #ThanksCoachK.
Courtesy Bart Sears & Krista McKenna, StFX Athletics