By AUSTIN GOODER
The Niagara River Lions have roared their way into the Niagara Region as the area’s first professional basketball team.
Sporting distinctive white home uniforms, the River Lions took to the court at the Meridian Centre in St. Catharines on Dec. 27 to play their first home game – and second game overall – of their inaugural season of National Basketball League Canada (NBLC) play.
The Lions were coming home after a tough loss to the London Lightning the night before and were looking to rebound against the same club.
The crowd of nearly 3,000 spectators couldn’t have known just how great a game they were about to witness.
The River Lions eaked out a weak showing through the first two quarters. Several fouls against the Lions had given London an 11-point lead after the first quarter.
The trend continued. Weak play in the paint from the Lions, matched with a lack of shots from field goal range, kept the Lions behind well into the fourth.
Enter Sammy Zeglinski.
Zeglinski, the starting point guard for the River Lions, had been a consistent scorer throughout the first parts of the game but had faded away as Da’quan Cook led the team in scoring through the second and third quarters.
Zeglinski was key in the River Lions coming back late in the fourth quarter. It was a comeback spurred by a bit of unseemly showmanship from London defender Chad Posthumus.
Posthumus received a personal foul halfway through the fourth quarter and then received a misconduct foul after charging towards game referees in anger.
The three ensuing free-throws for the River Lions brought the game within just a few shots.
Zeglinski nailed a three-pointer to bring the River Lions within seven points, and dropped another fade-away three for the hoop and the harm as he drew a foul from the London defender.
Zeglinski dropped both free-throws to bring the game within two.
Head coach and general manager of the River Lions Ken Murray pumped his fist after the shots fell through. Later, he’d say. “These players are very, very good.”
It was a perfect time for the Lions to be good, too. London threatened to pull away again with the lead as the game clock drained towards its final minutes. The buzz in the crowd created by Zeglinski’s earlier heroics was threatening to quit.
Enter, again, Zeglinski.
Zeglinski dropped another two threes and gave the River Lions their first lead of the game. The crowd was raucous. Popcorn was flying, shrill voices were screaming and the game announcer’s voice was booming.
Yet again the game threatened to get away. After a foul with only a minute left in the game, London took to the free-throw line and pulled two points ahead of the River Lions. The crowd’s merciless boos raining down as London shooter Garrett Williamson took to the free-throw line did nothing to deter the player.
Another hero needed to rise from the pandemonium threatening to erupt at the Meridian Centre.
Clinton Springer-Williams had the ball in field goal range with seven seconds left in the game. The crowd was screaming out the numbers on the shot clock, urging Williams into a shot. But Williams, ever patient, waited for the perfect moment to arise.
Williams pulled the ball to his left, jumped and heaved the ball towards the hoop that seemed miles away. The ball travelled in slow motion. The crowd went silent. The buzzer rang and rang and the ball swished through the hoop to give the River Lions a 106-104 win.
The crowd lost its collective marbles. The cacophony of screaming and clapping and shouting made court-level Meridian Centre one of the most dangerous places for a reporter’s ears in the world.
Even Coach Murray, the curmudgeonly red-faced shouter from the River Lions bench, was celebrating on the sidelines.
Five games later, the River Lions’ record rests at 2-5. Though there are positives to be found in this inaugural season for the River Lions, says Murray.
“What’s exciting is that we’ve not really played that well but four out of the five games we’ve played have been decided by three points or less,” Murray says.
“Hopefully down the road those three-point losses will turn into 13-point wins.”
Murray is the former head basketball coach for the St. Catharines-based Brock Badgers at Brock University. Though Murray brings much experience to the River Lions, he suggests that Canadian Interuniversity Sports and the NBLC are two different beasts.
“It’s totally different,” Murray says. “The level of play and the level of commitment of the athlete is so different.”
Murray laughs when he says, “Professional athletes don’t have to worry about going to class, so they can instead focus on training and practice and being fit for the game.”
Murray knows the first season for the River Lions isn’t going to be an easy one, but he suggests that the positives found in the first few games could lead to some exciting trends later in the season.
“We’re gonna cause some difficulties for some of the teams we play,” says Murray.
“And on the way, we’ll discover the players and their strengths and their weaknesses.”
Above all, Murray says he just wants to see the team be competitive, and he says they’ve lived up to that so far.
Tickets to see the Niagara River Lions can be purchased at riverlions.ca or at a Meridian Centre box office, and Murray says it’s a show worth seeing.
“It’s the best level of basketball they’re going to see,” Murray says.
“We take it to another level. The players are bigger, stronger and have much more experience.”
Murray might be referencing recent River Lions’ signee Samuel Deguara, a Maltan player who stands seven feet and five inches tall.
Teams in the NBLC are comprised of former college players and amateur players from across North America and the rest of the world.
Outside of the players on the court, River Lions games will also include giveaways, contests and game day music.
A full game schedule can also be found at riverlions.ca.