By: Mike Still
This season, guard Ritchie Kanza Mata and forward Kashrell Lawrence have the chance to finish what they helped start four years ago with the Dalhousie Tigers basketball program.
In 2011 and 2012, the Ontario products chose to take their talents to the East Coast. They each had the option of choosing from big-name programs such as Carleton or Ryerson, but bought into what Dalhousie was selling and committed to the Tigers instead.
For Kanza Mata, it was a chance to make an impact on the court immediately, while Lawrence felt Dalhousie offered a strong combination of social life, academics and athletics.
Two AUS championship banners, and numerous individual accolades later, the two fifth-year players have permanently left their mark on the Tigers basketball program.
The Tigers were coming off an AUS championship season at the end of 2010-11, and were redeveloping during Kanza Mata’s and Lawrence’s first seasons under then head coach John Campbell. They would finish with a combined 17-23 record from 2012-14, with an AUS playoff appearance included.
In 2014-15, things started to click. With the aid of second-year head coach Rick Plato, the team formed an identity as a hard-nosed, defensive team and demonstrated their resiliency on the court week after week.
Dalhousie went into the playoffs as the fifth-seed that year, before pulling off three straight double-digit comeback en route to winning their second AUS championship in the past five years – and the first with Kanza Mata and Lawrence on the roster.
“It took some time, and that’s why we kind of limped into the playoffs,” says Kanza Mata. “But we came together when it counted and we were resilient in all the games that we were losing, and that’s when our defence kicked in and we were able to win that first championship.”
The duo were front and centre during the 2014-15 campaign. Kanza Mata was named the AUS defensive player of the year – the first Dalhousie player to ever earn the honour – while Lawrence was a first-team all-star. He was also named the championship MVP after averaging 22 points and 12 rebounds during the AUS playoffs. Kanza Mata was also named a championship all-star.
The following year, Dalhousie picked up where they left off, finishing in first place in the AUS standings while capturing back-to-back conference championships for the first time in program history.
“That second championship when we had that ‘x’ on our back, we had to show up every game, and bear down, because every team was giving us their best shot, so it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park for any game,” says Kanza Mata.
“We also matured a lot from that first championship, because we had an understanding of what it took to win and what we had to do on a consistent basis to be that championship team.”
The Tigers went a step further in the 2015-16 season, pulling off a huge upset over Ottawa at the CIS (now U Sports) Final 8, after falling just short in the same round against Victoria the year before. It was Dalhousie’s second-ever win on the national stage.
“We expected to win, we knew what we had to do, we had a good game plan going in and matchup-wise, size-wise, we were a good fit against Ottawa,” says Lawrence.
Yet again, Kanza Mata and Lawrence were at the forefront of the Tigers memorable campaign. The former was named an AUS first team all-star, while the latter was named to the second team. Lawrence was again named the championship MVP, while Kanza Mata was a tournament all-star.
Finishing things off at home
This season, Dalhousie is hosting the U Sports Final 8, meaning that the duo are guaranteed a shot at the national championship. It’s a chance to cap off what’s been a memorable five seasons.
“It definitely means a lot more finishing where you started. We all started here in Halifax and the fact that we can end our career in the same place we started is very important,” says Lawrence.
“Knowing that we’re playing in front of people that have supported us for so many years and that love to watch us play is a great thing and it definitely pushes us to give our best effort and produce when it really matters.”
Regardless as to what happens this season, Kanza Mata and Lawrence will look back at their time on the East Coast with a smile.
“It’s given me a beautiful perspective of Canada and I love it here. There’s a lot of friendly and amazing people on the East Coast and it’s been home for the last five years, so I’ll always have that attachment to Halifax,” says Kanza Mata.
Lawrence echoed his teammate’s statement, noting the importance of the community he’s surrounded himself with.
“I’ve definitely matured as a man and realized that the network you surround yourself with is very important, and since everybody is so supportive around here, I’ve definitely learned to take that with me back, when I leave the city.”