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Nighthawks begin playoffs with Thursday night game in B.C.

'I think we're playing the right way and I think we really understand who our team is,' says coach Kissi
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A Guelph Nighthawks player drives to the hoop.

The Guelph Nighthawks have been in this position before – a year ago, to be exact.

The Nighthawks are to travel west to play the Fraser Valley Bandits in a Canadian Elite Basketball League playoff game Thursday night at the Langley Events Centre.

“It's more deja vu because we were in this place last year and they knocked us out except both teams are better,” said Nighthawks coach Charles Kissi. “We're coming with a little more experience, I would say.”

With the league expanding to 10 teams with the addition of three teams this season, eight teams qualified for post-season play with four of them (seventh-place Guelph, fourth-place Fraser Valley, fifth-place Saskatchewan Rattlers and sixth-place Edmonton Stingers) getting to compete in play-in games Thursday. Eighth-place Ottawa BlackJacks get a bye to the semifinals in the championship tournament as hosts of the weekend tournament Aug. 12-14.

While the Nighthawks were successful at the Sleeman Centre with a 7-3 home record, they were 3-7 on the road with one of the road victories being an 87-79 win at Langley July 15.

“That was definitely probably one of our better wins of the year,” Kissi said. “We always felt that at some point this season you were playing shorthanded and so anytime you can get a good team, whether it's them or Hamilton or whoever, you take it and run.”

But can the Nighthawks take anything from that victory?

“Definitely,” Kissi said. “You know what's necessary to win. That's a team that shoots the three really well and taking that away is like Step Number 1. Rebounding, I would say, is Step Number 2 because they do have a lot of bigs. I think those two things defensively are paramount, just not losing guys like (Shane) Gibson and guys like Alex Campbell who can with any time and space they're pretty reliable three-point shooters – Marek Klassen. They have a lot of guys that can multiple their numbers pretty quickly.”

The Nighthawks enter post-season play with three wins in their final five regular-season matches. But the two losses were by a combined total of three points.

“I think we're playing the right way and I think we really understand who our team is. I think we found the right 10 that can kind of carry the torch the rest of the way,” Kissi said.

“Anyone can beat anybody on any given night so you're hoping that you're in the right place. I think we're in the right place. We're in the playoffs. I think we know what we need to do. I think we know who we are as a team. I think we've found the right 10. We've had people in and out of our lineup all year long and I think we have figured out what the right combination is.”

The Nighthawks did suit up a lot of players this season – 22 in all for a 20-game campaign. Of that total, six played 13 or more games (Cat Barber, Ahmed Hill, T.J. Lall, Stefan Smith, Sean Miller-Moore and Julian Roche) with Hill and Miller-Moore the only players to appear in all 20 games.

“We needed to figure out our sizes,” Kissi said. “Rebounding was the one thing all year that stood out as glaring and we needed to solve that. Unfortunately, it took a few players. It's not like there's a large number of seven-footers hanging out waiting to be called. It took a little bit to kind of figure out what the formula was, but I think with G (Giorgi Bezhanishvili) and Lucas (Nogueira) now and Olu (Ashaolu), I think we've solved it.”

The Nighthawks feel their home fans should be recorded with an assist in helping them achieve their record at the Sleeman Centre. They started with 2,992 when Scarborough visited with rapper J. Cole and reportedly averaged just under 1,500 per game.

“Our crowds have been great all year,” Kissi said. “Look, we're 7-3 at home. I think that has to tell you something. We have the second-best home record in the league so that's got to tell you something about how good our crowds are. We've played really well at home. We've had great support at home. We have great fans at home. I think it's something that will continue to grow.”

While the crowds around the league have grown since its inaugural 2019 season, the only other time teams didn’t have to deal with a limit on their crowd sizes, so has the level of play.

“It's improved every year,” Kissi said. “It's improved every single year that I've been around and I think it will continue to improve as now the word is out about what this league is and what it can do for you as an individual and the opportunities within it. I think it will continue to get better.”

If the Nighthawks win Thursday night, they’d be the visitor on their own home court in the quarter-finals against the Niagara River Lions Saturday at 7 p.m. as Niagara’s home arena, the Meridian Centre in St. Catharines, isn’t available as it’s to host Canada Summer Games events this weekend.