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Acadia Axemen basketball team handling the pressure as they eye start of regular season, U Sports Final 8

Disappointment as Acadia Axemen lose to Dalhousie in AUS semi-finals. Pictured are Kyle Arsenault and Ben Miller. - Peter Oleskvich
Disappointment as Acadia Axemen lose to Dalhousie in AUS semi-finals. Pictured are Kyle Arsenault and Ben Miller. - Peter Oleskvich

The pressure is on for the Acadia Axemen basketball team this season as hosts of the 2018 U SPORTS Final 8 Men’s Basketball Championship.

And they seem to be handling it quite fine.

After last year’s heart-breaking loss to Dalhousie in the AUS semi-final game, the Axemen know that what they want is within reach. Sticking to the game plan and some help from returning veterans could be the recipe for success.

The loss of two veterans from last season, including AJ Simmonds and Kyle Arsenault, has been smoothed over by the addition of past veterans Rhys Larry and Thomas Johnson.

Larry, a 6’9” forward, will complement 6’9” forward Erik Nissen -  an AUS All-Star last season. In 2014-15, Larry’s last season, he averaged 10.3 points per game and pulled down 9.7 rebounds per game.

As noted, Erik Nissen will return for his fifth and final season. A summer that included Nissen’s play on Team Canada at the 2017 Summer FISU games should be a catalyst for an expected impact season. Nissen averaged 18.1 points per game and led the Axemen with 9.7 rebounds per game during the 2016-17 season.

Key returners in the back court include guards Ben Miller, Trevon Grant, Nick De Palma and Mitch Tempro. In preseason play, Miller and Grant have been the ones with most playing time, yet De Palma and Tempro have produced off the bench.

De Palma, who finished second in 3-point shots made of 53-124, will highlight the perimeter game once again.

Up front, Jerome Mugambi had significant playing time in the later part of the season, averaging 17 minutes and just under four rebounds per game. Thomas Johnson, who last played during the 2015-16 season, averaged 20 minutes per game and just under four rebounds per game.

New faces to the lineup include Mason Middaugh, Eli Kraushar and Brett Speedy. Middaugh had several impressive preseason games that included 11, 13 and 10 points versus Calgary, McGill and Laval, respectively.

“Those three guys we think can make some impact for us in different roles right away. They’ll fit into some roles for us throughout the season,” commented head coach Kevin Duffie.

Last year’s playoff run was cut short in a nail-bitter semi-final loss to Dalhousie, where a late game lead led to disappointment. The experience from the playoff loss and six losses of eight points or less during the regular season has shaped this year’s drive for an AUS championship.

“I think our experience is going the help in league play on how to win some games. We were in a lot of good games last year. We won some close ones and we lost some close ones, especially late in the year. We hope to take some of those experiences, moving forward and figure out how to win. Win in the quarter court in crunch times and big games. We have a group that has that experience in close games,” noted Duffie, when asked about what the Axemen need to carry forward from last season.

The Axemen open the regular season this Saturday night at 8 p.m. against the visiting Memorial Sea-Hawks. Both teams play for a second game on Sunday starting at 3 p.m.

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