Graduating Panthers looking to go out as winners

Marcel Vander Wier
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Lual, Cooper will play their final home games in a UPEI uniform tonight

Tim Kendrick, head coach of the UPEI Panthers men’s basketball team, is shown with graduating players Jonathan Cooper, centre, and Manock Lual during Friday’s practice at the Chi-Wan Young Sports Centre. G

It’s the end of an era for the UPEI Panthers men’s basketball program.

Tonight marks the last home game for the team’s two fifth-year stars — Manock Lual and Jonathan Cooper.

The co-captains will be honoured prior to their matchup with the Cape Breton Capers.

Game time is 6 p.m. at the Chi-Wan Young Sports Centre.

The Panthers enter the game tied with the Capers for third in the Atlantic University Sport standings at 32 points.

UPEI is aiming to halt its current four-game losing streak at home, where they haven’t lost all year.

The game promises to be an emotional one for two star seniors, as they plan to cap off their most successful season at UPEI with a win.

“So many feelings and different emotions come to mind,” Lual said this week. “It was just yesterday . . .  I was in my first year thinking I knew everything, but ready to work.”

The 6-foot-6 Ottawa product has left his mark as a two-time AUS all-star and two-time team MVP. 

And he had a message for Panther fans.

“Thank you for everything,” the 23-year-old said. “For supporting, for making P.E.I. forever feel like home. We are a very confident bunch of players. The last few losses haven’t changed anything. We’re still hungry and have learned from our mistakes coming down the stretch.”

Cooper agreed with Lual’s sentiments.

“We’re bringing everything we’ve got this week,” said the 6-foot-2 Toronto native. “We’re not taking this lightly and would like to give ourselves the chance to finish as high as third. We’ve had a bit of a slide, but that stuff happens. We’re 150 per cent confident in our ability to win games and will take that with us through this last game and the AUS championships.”

Tonight’s game will be memorable for the 25-year-old shooting guard.

“I’ve had the best years of my life at UPEI,” Cooper said this week. “I couldn’t be happier with my choice to come here in the first place. 

“I’m glad I got the opportunity to play for (head) coach (Tim) Kendrick and the rest of the staff. I just want everyone to know that I love them and I appreciate the support they showed, even when we weren’t doing very well. I appreciate them sticking with us through my time here and won’t forget it.”

Lual and Cooper have co-captained the Panthers for the last three years.

Next year, Lual aims to take his talents overseas, while Cooper is ready to go wherever the wind takes him.

“To me, we could never be where we are without those two,” said Kendrick. “It’s very difficult to explain how much they’ve meant to UPEI. They have been as important to the program as anyone in the country this year.” 

Kendrick had nothing but praise for both players.

“I believe that Manock Lual is the best post player in this league,” he said. “His work ethic is second-to-none and his commitment to the team is extraordinary.

“Jon Cooper’s commitment to the team is much like Manock’s. He helped lead the team and bought in, in terms of positive. He has been instrumental in everything we’ve done.”

Ceremonies aside, tonight’s matchup is an important one for the Panthers (12-7), currently mired in a slump.

The Capers (11-8) got the Panthers started on that streak, soundly defeating UPEI 111-90 on Feb. 11.

“We’ve beaten everybody but Cape Breton,” Kendrick said. “And they really kicked our rear-ends last time. We didn’t like that very much. 

“We want to get back on the winning track before the playoffs,” he said. “It’s important for us. Every team we play from now on is a good team.”

The Panthers received a tough blow earlier this week, when MRI results revealed point guard Terrence Brown’s knee injury is worse than initially feared.

While Kendrick wouldn’t rule out Brown from a potential playoff comeback, he said the news “certainly is concerning”. 

“He has been a big part of our success, and is working like a demon to get back. But we need to move forward as if Terrence won’t be back. We’re not down, and we’re not going to be down. We’re not making excuses.”

The AUS championship will be held in Halifax from March 2 to 4.

Organizations: Panthers, Atlantic University Sport, Chi-Wan Young Sports Centre

Geographic location: Ottawa, Toronto, Cape Breton Halifax

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