First place X-Men boast balanced attack

First place X-Men boast balanced attack

Defense, rebounding will be keys to playoff success

By Corey LeBlanc

It may sound cliché but it is difficult to argue with the common sports adage that defense wins championships – just ask STFX X-Men basketball head coach Tyrell Vernon.

Improving on that side of the ball has been a key focus for the White and Blue since they tipped off training camp last fall.

The second-year X-Men mentor describes their progress as a "huge leap," with the program reaching its goal of becoming one of the top three defensive teams statistically in U SPORTS.

"We need to continue in that way," Vernon says, with the conference playoff tournament on the horizon.

The X-Men, who finished first in the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) regular season at 17-3, boasted the second stingiest defense in the conference; they surrendered 1476 points, while the second-place UPEI Panthers gave up a conference-best 1475.

They also led the AUS in defensive rebounds (29.7 points per game) and steals (10.7).

STFX – fifth in the most recent national rankings – and UPEI have earned first-round byes for the 2023 Subway Atlantic University Sport (AUS) Men's Basketball Championship – from Friday, Feb. 24 to Sunday, Feb. 26 – at Scotiabank Centre in Halifax.

The White and Blue will take the court for the first time on Saturday, Feb. 25 – at 3 p.m. – when they square off in a semi-final match-up versus the winner of the quarter-final tilt between the fourth-seeded Cape Breton University Capers and fifth-seeded UNB Reds.

"We did our job," Vernon offers of reaching their primary regular-season goal to earn one of the top-two spots.

He notes that the X-Men faced adversity throughout the year, but they have been able "to clean things up." Pointing to the importance of "accountability," Vernon says players and coaches have focused on "improving every day."

"It hasn't been perfect, but we have been successful," he adds.

As for securing an opening round bye, Vernon says, "It is always huge."

He remembers how his former X-Men head coach – the legendary Steve Konchalski "harped on the importance" of not having to win three games in three days on the AUS championship stage.

Nevertheless, he describes how things "can go both ways," with the team that played already potentially holding an early advantage in the semi-final round.

"It is a key to come out ready to play, especially in the first quarter," Vernon says.

He explains that the "main keys" for the X-Men will be "continuing to defend at a high level," along with strong rebounding – on both ends of the floor.

Vernon adds, "That's what has brought us success all year."

On the post-season stage, he notes that getting "stops when you need them" will be crucial.

"For the most part, we have been able to do that all season."

Along with a strong defense, the X-Men feature a potent offense – one that led the AUS in scoring with 1854 points.

Each player in the usual starting five for the White and Blue averaged in double figures – led by Antigonish native Dondre Reddick with 16.2 points per game. Second-year forward David Muenkat (15.2), who also led the conference with 10.2 rebounds per game, Deon Ejim (14.1), Avan Nava (12.6) and Antoine Vernon (11.3) round out that quintet.

The X-Men topped the conference with a 46.8 per cent field goal percentage, while finishing second from three-point land (35.2). With 14.3 offensive rebounds per game, they also led the AUS.

The balanced scoring attack perfectly represents the X-Men program's focus on depth, with as many as 10 players receiving floor time each game.

"We are not going to change," Vernon says, when asked if he would be shortening his bench during the playoffs.

He explains says that – throughout the season – the X-Men have had a "next man up" attitude; most recently, that approach was tested with injuries to Ejim and Vernon.

"We have been able to find our way," he adds.

Vernon reiterates that they will not rely on "one specific player(s)" to lead them to its first AUS banner since 2006, when the White and Blue wrapped up a run of three consecutive title victories.

He agrees that the six-team tournament – not surprisingly – should be highly competitive, with no easy path to winning a coveted conference crown.

"After a long season, everyone knows everyone; we know each other's tendencies," Vernon explains.

He offers that it often comes down to what team is "prepared best for the highs and lows," which inevitably crop up throughout the tournament.

Vernon also notes the importance of handling the "atmosphere," including the larger and more boisterous crowds, at Scotiabank Centre.

"I am confident that we are going to be ready," he says.

The three-day tournament wraps up with the AUS championship game on Sunday at 4 p.m.

The X-Men and STFX Athletics will host the 2023 U SPORTS Men's Final 8, from March 8 to 10, at Scotiabank Centre in Halifax.