TORONTO — The role of the big man has changed, but the expectations haven't, so Lien Phillip put the Windsor Lancers' missed opportunities on his shoulders.
Every March in Canadian university basketball, a team which has been in the Top 10 all season gets left out in the cold. The dust gets blown off the same arguments for expanding to from an eight- to a 16-team championship. The counterpoint is that conference playoffs already provide that first culling ahead of the CIS Final 8. The percentage of teams (eight out of 44) who reach the CIS Final 8 is right in line with the NCAA tournament (68 out of 347 Division I men's teams).
So there was urgency Saturday afternoon when Lakehead and Windsor tipped off in the OUA bronze-medal game, only Phillip seemed to project it the most of any Lancer during their 78-64 loss. Having their lead guard Josh Collins limited to 11 minutes over two games after injuring his right ankle in practice last Wednesday was too much for Windsor to overcome. A know-it-all might even say Windsor played like it knew this, but that's presumptuous. Lakehead just made shots and the Lancers were a touch off. No matter how much his team was fading, Phillip was a treat to watch while he tried to not to lose the patient, knifing in for offensive rebounds, getting above the rim for a tip-in putback. The Grenada-born power forward who didn't take up hoops until moving to Toronto in his teens had his usual double-double, 15 points and 13 rebounds. But he shot only 4-of-14 while Lakehead's broad-shouldered bigs, Yoosrie Salhia and Matthew Schmidt, took license with the rules and used their fouls wisely.
If Phillip had gone to a NCAA school instead of Windsor in 2009, this could have been end of this stage of his hoops life. Instead he only went home with a narrative for his fifth season. The wild-card berth is likely to go to No. 5 Acadia. If so, that makes three years in a row that coach Chris Oliver's Lancers have missed the Final 8. Windsor lost a first-round game to eventual national champion Saskatchewan in Phillip's frosh year in 2010.
"This is a lot of motivation — I am going take a lot out of this game," the 23-year-old Phillip said. "Losing two in a row hurts. Not getting where you want to be is motivation. I’ll be back, bigger and stronger, next year.
"For me, I’m not really an individual guy, I want team success. If coach says do something that'll help the team, I’ll do it."
The kicker is Phillip did so this season. Even with an OUA West all-star who led the country in rebounding last season, Windsor committed to playing fast and sharing the ball. One night against Queen's just before the Christmas break, they scored 118 points. Phillips' place is of a piece with how coaches in Canada, who rarely have 7-footers to clog the post, let a 6-7 or 6-8 forward do more than just offer length. Phillip bought in, all for naught.
"There is no question that he did put his heart and soul into it today," Lancers coach Chris Oliver said. "That goes to his off-season as well. That’s where you see his development. We promised him that we would develop him as a perimeter player as much as an inside player and give him that dual dimension. He’s committed himself. Done all the work."
Phillip surely is going to play for pay somewhere after next season. Being steeped in the more internationalist nature of the CIS game ought to boost his prospects. (Of course, who knows what overseas teams look for with North American signings.)
"I've seen how the game is played over there [in Europe]," Phillip said. "So I don’t think it will be much of a problem."
Odds are, a professional shot is in the cards for Phillip, who to the naked eye looks so more nimble and quick than the typical 6-8 post in CIS. On Friday, he blocked a shot by Ottawa's fifth-year star Warren Ward so cleanly that the ohhhhhh you usually hear in the gym was faint, since there was such little time lapse between Ward going up, Phillip getting his hand out and Windsor swinging into transition.
Point being, though, he has another season where basketball will still be about a band of brothers. The all-for-one thing is still valid in CIS. Anywhere else, it seems as quaint as, well, the idea an eight-team national championship will leave out the No. 6-ranked team.
"As a university student, you’re trying to accomplish team success," Lien Phillip said. "You want to see everybody be happy."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.