The energy was high at the Sea Bears' home opener on Saturday, and to make it worth it, they beat the Vancouver Bandits 90-85.
Before the game began, True North Square was filled with fans for the We Got Next pregame party anxious to see how the Winnipeg Sea Bears will do on their first game.
Thankfully, fans were not disappointed.
A clutch three-pointer by Jelani Watson-Gayle in Target Score Time helped the Winnipeg Sea Bears (1-0) earn a 90-85 win over the Vancouver Bandits (0-1) in front of over 7,000 fans at the Canada Life Centre on Saturday evening.
Watson-Gayle, from London, UK, racked up 22 points off the bench and played a pivotal role in securing the Sea Bears their first CEBL win in franchise history.
It was that shot that calmed the rest of the team to not waste a 13-point lead in Target Score Time.
"We were scrambling, we didn’t have a rhythm," says Watson-Gayle. "We needed something to settle us a bit, and I felt that three settled us to be like 'you know what, it’s cool' and we were able to finish it with a win."
Both teams struggled to find a groove offensively in the first quarter.
The Bandits and Sea Bears combined to shoot just 10-31 from the field in the first. It was Nick Ward, one of Vancouver's five big men who stand over 6'9", who used that height to his advantage and made all five of his free throws in the first quarter to give the Bandits a 17-15 lead. This was substantial as Vancouver struggled to get shots to fall.
"Nick is a big body, he’s one of the best if not the best big in the league," says Sea Bears forward Chad Posthumus.
It was in the second quarter that Vancouver's failed attempts to make jump shots started to cost them.
Vancouver failed to get a three-pointer to drop in the first half, while the Sea Bears—led by Watson-Gayle’s four first-half threes—jumped out to a six-point lead at the break.
Simon Hildebrandt, the number one overall pick from the CEBL’s U SPORTS Draft, played impactful minutes with Posthumus struggling with foul trouble. Hildebrandt scored five quick points in the third quarter to extend Winnipeg’s lead to 16 after three.
"I missed my first couple shots [of the game] but my teammates just kept on telling me to shoot the ball," says Hildebrandt. "They have faith in me and it was a huge confidence boost that they trust me."
Hildebrandt finished with 13 points and 4 rebounds in his CEBL debut.
Trailing 80-67 heading into Target Score Time, Vancouver finally started to get shots to fall. The Bandits went on a 7-1 run to begin Target Score Time—highlighted by five straight points from Giorgi Benzhanishvili—to cut Winnipeg’s lead to seven.
The Bandits used five of DJ Steward’s game-high 30 points in Target Score Time to briefly tie the game at 85. But then Winnipeg went on a 5-0 run punctuated by a Posthumus layup to seal the victory.
"We didn’t play the way we wanted to play until about six and a half minutes left in the game," says Vancouver Head Coach Kyle Julius. "So we have to adjust, it’s our first game, I’m proud of the fight."
Sea Bears Head Coach Michael Taylor said Winnipeg’s defence was crucial in holding off the Bandits. He added after the game that Watson-Gayle’s three was massive to shift the momentum back on their side.
"We were searching for a way to get good shots," Taylor said. "We weren’t executing like we needed to, the guys' hearts were in the right place, they were trying, and then as luck would have it, the offensive rebound from Chad and the put-back [ended the game]."
Carrying momentum throughout Target Score Time, Posthumus said, will be crucial for their team moving forward throughout the remainder of the season.
"We had a solid third quarter, for myself and as a team, heading into [Target Score Time], which is what you need to do in this league," says Posthumus.
After losing their significant lead in the Target Score Time, it was a valuable lesson for the new team that everyone needs to work hard until the very end.
The Sea Bears will travel to Brampton to face the reigning CEBL champions on Thursday, June 1. Vancouver, meanwhile, will look to earn their first victory of 2023 against the Saskatchewan Rattlers on the road on Wednesday, May 31.