OUA: Emerging McMaster Squad Embrace Modern Basketball amid Uncertainty 

Perhaps the turning point was that faithful trip to Windsor back on Feb. 26. The McMaster Marauders women’s basketball team had just played four challenging games against the Brock Badgers and Western Mustangs. The Marauders had an impressive 97-66 win over the Lancers a few nights earlier, arguably their most impressive offensive performance this season. 

“There were things they did tonight that they weren’t doing last game or they weren’t doing two weeks ago, and you could see a step up in everybody’s game,” head coach Theresa Burns noted after the win. “Million little details and some of them huge jumps. Jenna Button was fantastic tonight; she needed that. Sarah Gates continues to be Sarah Gates.” 

Burns said she was pleased with the team’s pace and their ability to move, share and shoot the ball. The Marauders shot 49.3 per cent from the field, 48.4 per cent from three and 83.3 per cent from the free-throw line. They had a balanced scoring attack with Arianne Soriano, Sarah Gates, Amy Stinson and Jenna Button all scored in double figures, including a career-high 20 points for Button. They also had 18 assists.

Sarah Gates (Photo: Colin Wouda/McMaster Athletics)

Three nights later, Gates – the leading scorer in the OUA – was injured in Windsor and hasn’t suited up since. The Marauders made a comeback to win that game but lost two in a row to the Waterloo Warriors. They beat the Laurier Golden Hawks on Mar. 9 but lost the chance to host a home playoff game. Then, it was announced their regular-season finale was cancelled due to COVID protocols from McMaster’s side. 

Now, with Gates’ injury absence and the uncertainty due to their COVID situation – will they be able to play their upcoming playoff game against Waterloo – there is a lot up in the air. However, up until that Windsor game and afterwards, there is a lot to be hopeful about with their present and their future. 

The sense heading into the season was that this would be a young team. McMaster has seven rookies – including some who joined the team during the 2020-21 season – and three second-year players. 

Some returning players were stepping into new roles: Arianne Soriano took over the primary point guard duties. At the same time, Clare Sharkey saw significant minutes as their post player after Olivia Wilson’s departure. The team even had to integrate a couple of NCAA transfers: forward Jennah Taylor from Ursuline College and centre Alissa Smith from Hope College. 

The COVID cancelled the season, and the pause during this season impacted the rookies’ development without games and practices. “They’ve had huge gaps in their training cycles and their development,” Burns noted.

“Some of the learning that takes place is that immediacy of something happened in a game; I come into practice, I work on it, I get into the next game,” she noted. “When all of a sudden you have a break…that’s going to hinder your development and or just delay it, I think a little bit.”

Burns noted coming out of the break; it would take the team two, three or four games to get going again. The team went 1-3 versus Brock and Western during those games, who finished as the top two sides in the OUA West standings. 

The games provided a good learning experience for the young Marauders squad. “Our challenge to them is to be able to put that into practice and then bring that from practice into a game situation,” Burns noted. 

First-year forward, Amy Stinson noted the team’s need to work on the little details against Brock and Western. According to her, the team’s leaders help with that in practices and games. 

“If we’re not on our game in practice, someone will like get the group together or when we’re going to get a water break, they’ll say get it together, need to be on top of this because this translates into games,” Stinson noted.

The main things that stand out when you watch the Marauders play are their spacing, ball movement, and the number of threes they take. Basketball analyst Doug McCooeye wrote a breakdown piece on his substack Game of Runs about the Marauders and their place as statistical outliers in U Sports women’s basketball heading into the winter break. 

After crunching the numbers, McCooeye found that while the Marauders were shooting well (31.6 per cent) from three – good for eighth in the nation – they are far and away number one in the per cent of threes they attempt per game (among all field goal attempts). At the break, 50.2 per cent of McMaster’s shots were from beyond the arc. The next closest team in the top 10 of three-point shooting teams was Alberta, at 37.3 per cent of their shots. McMaster is the rare team that shoots the three well and shoots it a lot. 

That number has stayed high at the end of the regular season. In all games this season, the Marauders have shot 28.7 per cent overall and have launched threes of 44.56 per cent of their shots. “I want us to shoot the ball,” Burns noted. “To take a deep two versus a three, we’re not taking deep twos; we want to be taking threes.”

“I’m happy if we volume shoot a little bit as long as a couple of things have to happen: our spacing has to be there, you have to understand your own personal range of shooting and is that a good shot for you or do we need to go extra to the next one,” she added. “Once we get some of those things done, it’s almost green light to shoot it, and we want you to shoot it; we want them to feel comfortable.”

Delaney Bourget (Photo: Rick Zazulak/McMaster Athletics)

The team certainly has the players capable of doing so. Gates, Stinson, Mia Spadafora, Delaney Bourget and Deanna Mataseje all shoot above 30 per cent from deep, while Soriano shoots 29.1 per cent. The team also plays a style that allows them to do so. McCooeye pointed it out in his analysis as well. 

“Barring an early open three, where it seems multiple players have a neon green light in the film I’ve watched, McMaster has built their semi-transition and half-court offense around getting some sort of penetration to force the defense to rotate, and then counter it with good ball movement and decisions, ultimately leading to an open three-point shot,” he wrote in his breakdown.

McCooeye also pointed out Gates’ presence as a penetrator and the sets Mac runs to open up those threes. “Backpicks, hand-offs, double screens – you name it – are happening all the time around the three-point arc, all with the purpose of creating driving lanes or airspace for their prolific shooters to release,” he wrote. “And it’s working.”

Burns also sees the benefit of their high-volume three-point shooting. “I feel like that puts pressure on the other team. When you have to close out to the three-point line really aggressively all over the floor, then you open up other things that are going to happen,” she said. 

The long-time coach noted how she wants her players to be intelligent, all-around players. She adds that it’s part of the evolution of the game in Canada as the basketball world modernizes and game films of different playing styles worldwide become more accessible. “It’s that idea of a global player, meaning they have a global skill set, all-around skill set,” she said. 

It’s not just at McMaster either. University of Calgary women’s head coach Damian Jennings – from Wales, where he spent numerous years inside the British basketball system and with the national team – has emphasized before on the Dinos Unfiltered podcast how he wants his teams to play modern basketball. That means pushing the ball, pressing and playing position-less basketball. It means not being as hung up on players being defined as a 1-5 (the numbers for positions; one is a point guard, five is a centre, etc.) but being well-rounded basketball players with versatile skills, according to Jennings. 

For Burns, positions 1 and 5 are a little bit specialized but are those players also encouraged to shoot from the outside if they can. 

“Everybody else – two, three, four – it doesn’t matter to me; it’s all the same thing. Be a basketball player. Develop every facet of your game, be as versatile as you can be, understand reads, be a smart player,” she said. “I think the old days of you’re a two; you’re a three, you’re a four, you do these different jobs, it’s kind of gone to the wayside.” She’s seen the evolution from her playing days and her early coaching days to now.

Theresa Burns (Photo: Rick Zazulak/McMaster Athletics)

According to her, part of coaching her players with that in mind is the focus on being an intelligent player, making reads, and playing any game style. “We are trying to make them intelligent basketball players and not just robots that run through X and O’s,” she added. 

Part of the essence of modern basketball the young team is working on is spacing, penetration principles and cohesion. “You have as five moving pieces that are coordinated and moving together so any kind of movement of the ball, everybody else knows where everybody else is and shifts and then you see the ball flying around,” Burns said. 

According to her, the culture and continuity of the coaching staff help develop and practice that style of play. Burns has been the McMaster head coach since 1992 and is aided by long-time assistants Ed Grosel and Andrew Baillie. Assistant coach Danielle Boaigo is in her third year as a Mac coach but played under Burns for five years at Mac. 

The current players also help. “Our veteran players really take a lot of pride in kind of passing along the culture you know and the teaching to the young ones, and we’ve got great support staff around us and all the other support services that we have,” Burns said. 

Finally, despite their uncertain future right in front of them, the process of continuing to grow and learn also comes through practice and time – both for the rest of this season and into the future with the young core. “It’s just working on it daily, and it’s talking about details and talking about spacing, and it’s talking about, you know, how crisply we pass the ball,” Burns noted.

“There’s a million and one details to the game, and we’re trying to get them to focus on it and be disciplined with those reads and disciplined with those skills…it’s hard to get a young player to do that, but as they get more and more games under their belt, you can see the talent that’s there,” she continued. “Just need a little more experience with this group.” 

Featured Image: Colin Wouda/McMaster Athletics

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