If the UNBC Timberwolves could buy time in a bottle, a game would be destined to prolong Vova Pluzhnikov’s playing career.
In the six years he’s been associated with UNBC men’s basketball, the Ukraine-born and raised fullback has become an irreplaceable cog in the machinery that keeps the T-wolves world turning.
Without him, it’s unlikely the T-wolves would have secured the 82-78 victory they won Saturday night in Langley against the Trinity Western University Spartans.
In what was probably his best game of the season, Pluzhnikov had the golden touch. Five attempts from three-point field only resulted in net. His remarkable performance was evident, with 21 points, 13 rebounds, three assists and two steals, but just as important was the quiet confidence he showed and the smart choices he made in moving the ball and spin. calming that it had on his teammates.
As the Spartans surged forward with a second-half push, just like they did in their 105-101 overtime win over UNBC on Friday, the T-wolves needed someone to show them how to snatch victory from defeat and Pluzhnikov was up to the challenge. .
“He’s had a little trouble shooting the ball this year and it’s been good to see him get in there and make a few shots and step up like we like our fifth-year guys are able to do,” said the T-wolves head coach Todd. Jordan. “His contributions played an important role in the game.”
Pluzhnikov’s U SPORTS basketball career is winding down, with just three regular season games left for the fifth-year guard from Kharkiv, Ukraine, who turns 27 on Tuesday, and he found the net with a greater regularity in recent weeks. He scored for 19 points on Jan. 28 against Fraser Valley, had 19 in Friday’s overtime loss to Trinity Western and finished with 21 in Saturday’s rematch.
Pluzhnikov feels a weight lift off his shoulders.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “I was thinking about my shot selections (Friday) and some of them were rushed and today I focused on taking really good shots and leading our team not only in terms of scoring, because that’s never my goal, but in terms of decision making and being level and having that next game mentality.
He said the T-wolves learned from their mistakes the night before.
“Yesterday was a close game and we thought we had it, with a few minutes left in the game we were up nine, but that’s something we still need to improve as a team,” Pluzhnikov said. “We have a lot of youngsters in the squad and defensively we have to stay sharp. This game we let them have a little run and hit a couple wide open threes on transition Instead of just taking responsibility and finding our clashes we just pointed at each other and hoped someone would turn on his shooters, but not one made it and they got some open shots on the stretch.
“We knew it was their senior night and they were going to come out strong, and they did, but we weathered the storm and got a few saves early on. After hitting a few hard shots, we ran and edged the ball a few times and made a few lay-ups. I think that was key, we weren’t just constantly shooting the ball at three, we wanted to get the ball to our bigs, Spencer and Fareed.
“We trusted each other, offensively and defensively, and the scoresheet shows the result of our teamwork today.”
UNBC led by 12 at the half, 50-38, and the T-wolves held an 11-point bulge after three quarters, up 63-52. Playing their final home game of the season at the Langley Events Centre, the Spartans certainly made things interesting in the final 10 minutes.
They cut the lead to six points before Spencer Ledoux and Fareed Shittu connected on lay-ups to give UNBC a bit more breathing room. But Ja’Qualyn Gilbreath, the Spartans’ fifth-year guard, despite working the whole second half with four fouls, continued to be strong. He made his own lay-up, stole the ball from Ledoux and set up Tre Fillmore for a trey corner that made it a one-point game with 4:29 left.
The Spartans continued to force turnovers and after Andrew Goertzen tied it on a free throw, Gilbreath took a pass from Mason Bourcier and drove for the bucket and a 73-71 lead. It stayed that way until 1:55 from the end, Chris Ross found the net for a three to give the T-wolves the lead. The lead swung back and forth with Gilbreath and Shittu doing the damage.
Then, with 50 seconds left, Pluzhnikov fired a rainbow to end a perfect 5-on-5 night from three points and make it a 79-75 game. Gilbreath had a final three-point strike up his sleeve to boost Spartans hopes, but Tyrell Laing came right back with a jumper with 28 seconds left. Gilbreath threw another long-range bomb but missed. Pluzhnikov grabbed the rebound and took the ball deep but ‘Q’ as Gilbreath is known in the league, blocked the shot. With eight seconds remaining, Fillmore rebounded and quickly moved the ball towards Bourcier, whose hailstorm missed the mark.
“We defended much better tonight than Friday night, which made a big difference,” Jordan said. “We fought to be able to finish around the basket a bit, and their kid Q (Gilbreath) got going and was really tough late in the game. Fortunately, we defended fairly well during the match, we had a little margin and we were able to hold on. Chris Ross made a big three late which kind of helped us.
“It’s been a season of ups and downs and it’s good to have that ‘W’ and to have a split here.”
Laing had his usual productive day at the office with 17 points. Shittu’s athleticism over the rim while hitting the rebounds and his ability to jump high enough to slam the ball through the hoop is a marvel to watch. He had 11 points 12 rebounds and two blocks. Rotash Mattu also hit the double with 10 points. Gilbreath, the Canada West leading scorer, had 33 points, while Goertzen had 13.
The T-wolves’ men are in their final three games of the season, all on straight Saturdays. They will face UBC-Okanagan in Kelowna next weekend, then host Trinity Western and Victoria at the Northern Sport Centre.
The Spartans (6-9) had won six of their last seven games heading into Saturday. All 17 Canada West teams will advance to the men’s playoff tournament in Lethbridge, March 4-6. The T-wolves (5-10, fifth in the West Division) will try to improve their standings to have a better chance of surviving day two of the playoffs.
“It’s really about peaking at the right time,” Jordan said. “We have enough pieces in this team if we can really find a rhythm here the next three weeks and get a group of guys to play well then we have a very good chance of having a good push in the playoffs. .”