'I think from the coaching staff on down, we all wanted this, we knew how important it was for our fans'
Sudbury Five forward Travis Releford sat in the players’ lounge with a deep-muscle massager on his upper thigh, but a smile on his face.
What was a bit of pain, after all, if it meant starting the new year off right?
“That’s my role,” said Releford, referencing the physical price to be paid as an on-court leader for the National Basketball League of Canada club.
“I just try to keep guys focused, you know, there were a lot of bad calls out there that didn’t go our way, but you know that’s going to happen going into every game. I just try to keep everybody on the same page and just try to stay in the game.”
He did that, and then some, matching teammate Braylon Rayson with a team-high 29 points in Sudbury’s 129-124 win over the London Lightning at Sudbury Community Arena on Friday night.
Adam Blazek added 27 points and Cory Dixon 23 as the Five opened 2019 by snapping a three-game losing streak and avenged a loss to the defending NBLC champions last weekend.
“It was a big effort from our team, from the guys who came off the bench,” Releford said. “I feel like everybody, from the jump, put out a big effort for us to win today.”
A couple of thrilling drives to the basket by Releford, along with clutch shooting by Blazek, helped the Five secure the victory, which was still in doubt until the final seconds, and improve to 9-8 on the season.
“You lose three in a row, you’d better be hungry to win a game,” Releford said. “I think from the coaching staff on down, we all wanted this, we knew how important it was for our fans. They come out and they show us crazy love, so we felt like we needed to win this for them.”
Indeed, the announced crowd of 2,262 was Sudbury’s largest since its home opener, and certainly one of the loudest.
“The crowd is incredible, it’s awesome,” said Logan Stutz, Five head coach and general manager. “They make every game feel like a big game and it makes every game have value and importance and that’s kind of the X-factor for us. These guys come out and it’s exciting for our guys.”
AJ Gaines Jr. was a force all over the court for London, mixing jump shots with jams for a team-high 26 points off the bench. Marvell Waithe missed some key free throws in the game’s waning moments, but was nonetheless a key contributor for the visitors, collecting 23 points. Teammates Xavier Moon and Maurice Bolden scored 19 and 16, respectively.
Sudbury trailed 31-29 after one quarter and 67-63 at the half, but strong three-point shooting from Rayson, just back from injury, and Blazek, along with good work from close range by Releford and Dixon, helped the home side keep pace.
The Five pulled ahead early in the third frame and, after the lead changed hands a few times, took a 96-95 advantage into the fourth.
Dixon scored 11 of his points in the final 12 minutes and grabbed four of his team-high eight rebounds. Devin Gilligan had six boards and Rayson five to help make up for the loss of leading rebounder Grandy Glaze, who signed earlier in the week with a team in Chile.
“I feel like we had a lot of energy and I feel like there was no drop-off,” Releford said. “Of course we miss Grandy with his rebounding and also the plays he would make, but I feel like there was no drop-off tonight.”
Sudbury was also without sharp-shooting guard Jaylen Bland, who continues to work his way back from an injury, but Stutz was pleased with the way others stepped up.
“Having Braylon back was great, Blaze played unbelievable, Travis played great, Cory played great,” Stutz said. “Georges (Serresse) came in and gave us a lot of great minutes. We’re getting a lot of contributions from a lot of places and that makes my job a little easier.
“To grind this one out, a little short-handed, it shows a lot. When we get up to health and full form, if guys can hop back on and do the same things we’ve established, it’s going to be a good second half of the year.”
Friday’s victory left Releford a good feeling about what his team might achieve during the rest of the season.
“We can win grind-it-out games like this,” he said. “It’s going to come down to this late in the season, everybody is going to know everybody’s plays, so we’re going to have to win grind-it-out games like this.”
Sudbury’s next game is a visit to London, Sunday at 2 p.m.