Kingston, ON- As the buzzer sounded to bring the 2022 U Sports Women’s basketball Final 8 in Kingston to a close, it also brought to an end a season like no other. It was a season of highs and lows, ecstasy and disappointment. It was a season of uncertainty amid a global pandemic. It was a national championships that for a time didn’t seem certain to take place – given the AUS, OUA and RSEQ’s COVID pauses and the numerous cancelled games.
“We’re just happy to be on the court and be playing and not take anything for granted, any day for granted,” Queen’s head coach Claire Meadows told the media after their quarterfinal win over defending champion Saskatchewan. “I know this year’s been tough on our team and on a lot of teams. We’ve developed a lot of resiliency because of it and it showed tonight.”
Alas, the tournament went on and ended up producing many memorable moments such as that Queen’s versus Saskatchewan game, when host team pulled off the upset in front of a raucous home crowd at the Queen’s ARC.
While some teams fell short, others rose and seized the moment. Both semi-finals went down to the wire, with Brock and the Rams going to overtime again after their iconic OUA finals a week earlier. The host Gaels gave the Winnipeg Wesmen all they could handle before finally falling short. They rebounded to capture a historic bronze medal. It ended with the Rams winning their first national title and capping off an undefeated season.
This is the story of the 2022 U Sports nationals, the eight teams that chased a national championship and the one that won it all.
The Acadia Axewomen had found themselves in this position before. Just a couple of weeks earlier, head coach Len Harvey’s squad had fallen behind to the Cape Breton Capers in second half of the AUS title game. Back then in Halifax, his team had battled back – led by AUS MVP and senior Jayda Veinot – to win the AUS crown and clinch their spot in Kingston.
Fast forward two weeks later and the Axewomen fell behind again, this time to the Brock Badgers. Acadia trailed by as many as 20 points but once again – led by Veinot – made a comeback push. This time, they fell short of completing the comeback and their national title hopes were over.
“We didn’t guard,” Harvey told the media afterwards. “I thought we scored enough to win but we didn’t guard anybody. We’ve had those games as we’ve worn through the season.”
Veinot called it disappointing but was encouraged in their ability to come back from the deficit. One day later, her team found themselves down again vs the UPEI Panthers and once more, their comeback efforts fell short. Despite the losses, she called the nationals experience “incredible.”
“It’s special to represent your university wherever you go and especially as a hometown kid,” she added. “It’s everything you want. The whole time, your whole career. You want the national championship, so to be here, compete here, it’s special.”
Harvey called Veinot a “generational talent”, who they recruited hard as a hometown player from nearby Port Williams, Nova Scotia. She spent a redshirt year at Saint Mary’s in 2017-18 before transferring to Acadia and making an immediate impact. Veinot has continued to improve her game every season since then.
She led the team in scoring with 23 points against Brock along with six rebounds and four assists in 38 minutes of action. “It’s nice to see her have success at this stage for sure,” Harvey noted. “It’s always special to have a kid from small town Wolfville play on the biggest stage.”
While Veinot’s university career has come to a close, the Axewomen will continue to build for the future. The program has been to nationals three times under Harvey but has yet to reach the semi-finals. Harvey said he plans to re-evaluate some things going into the offseason. The team is welcoming back Veinot’s former teammate, fellow Port Williams native and U Sports all-star Haley McDonald back into the fold for 2022-23.
“I think that we’re not where we need to be, we’re not where we want to be,” he continued. “We’ve got to take a hard 360 look at what we’re trying to do. We don’t want to be [just] participants at the national championship so we’ve got some work to do.”
The Laval Rouge et Or had beaten the odds to even be there. Head coach Guillaume Giroux called this season a rebuilding year for his squad.
The Rouge et Or have been a staple in the RSEQ and at nationals. Laval won their third straight conference crown and reached nationals for the fifth season in a row. They’ve come oh so close to winning it all, having lost to McGill in the 2017 title game and McMaster in the 2019 finals. However, this team was younger than before, with eight first-year players. They were led by veterans Kim Letang and Lea Dominique but also rookies Sabrine Khelifi and Frederique Beaudry-Blais along with second-year guard Leslie Makosso.
The Rouge et Or upset the Bishop’s Gaiters in the RSEQ quarterfinals before beating the UQAM Citadins in the final to reach nationals once again. However, once they faced off against Winnipeg, they fell behind in the first quarter and couldn’t make up the deficit.
“We knew they were a physical team. We knew it would be tough,” Giroux said. “The way they shoot the ball in the first quarter, I think that’s the game right there.” He pointed out Winnipeg’s physical play against them as well as some of his team’s mental mistakes. The Rouge et Or shot better in the second half but were unable to get close enough to win.
Against Saskatchewan in the consolation semi-finals, they battled but the Huskies slowly pulled away more and more as the game went on. Giroux noted the team battled better against Saskatchewan than against Winnipeg.
Despite the early exit, Giroux noted he was happy about how the team pulled off an upset to reach nationals. He also pointed out the team was missing four players in Kingston due to COVID. “We’re happy about this experience,” he added. “We played two tough games so that gives a couple of kids experience.”
As those first-year players enter their future seniors, they will carry with them this experience to build from as the Rouge et Or continued their streak of reaching nationals and maybe winning that national title.
While Laval got hot in their conference playoffs, the UPEI Panthers were seemingly headed in the other direction. In some ways, it was a tale of two seasons for them.
For the first half – led by reigning U Sports Player of the Year Jenna Mae Ellsworth – the Panthers were the cream of the crop in the AUS and even Canada. UPEI earned a number one ranking in the U Sports poll while remaining undefeated. It seemed the Panthers were building off that momentum of their run to the bronze medal in 2020,.
Then, late in the first half of the season, Ellsworth went down with what eventually would be a season-ending injury. Then, the season paused, leaving the Panthers without basketball. When it resumed, UPEI lost its undefeated record and then lost in the AUS semi-finals versus Cape Breton. However, they topped the criteria to qualify for nationals as the wild card.
Against the Rams, they kept it tight after one quarter but fell behind 41-24 at halftime before losing 80-49. “We haven’t been able to string together consistent weeks or games,” head coach Matt Gamblin noted. “Part of that’s mental but part of that, you can’t get away from either.”
He called it a really good experience for his young team. The Panthers boast 10 first and second year players. In Ellsworth’s absence, the team was led by veterans Reese Baxendale and Caroline Del Santo. They were also aided by first-year guard Alicia Bowering and second-year forward Lauren Rainford.
The team bounced back to beat their conference rival Axewomen in the consolation semis, led by Rainford (25 points, two blocks) and Bowering (11 points). “She’s improved a lot and she’s got a long way to go as well,” Gamblin said of Rainford. “Being a key player at this level, the national level.”
Rainford praised the team for staying together and having a lot of energy against Acadia.
“Playing basketball, you kind of just have to have short term memory loss,” she continued. “We kind of put [the loss to Rams] in the past. There’s nothing we can do about it anymore. We had power over the rest of our weekend and we didn’t want to go home yet.”
After their fifth-place loss to the Saskatchewan Huskies, Gamblin said he was proud of his players efforts in a season that’s been “a long haul.”
“We made it here,” he added. “I think the kids did a good job and there’s a lot to battle the whole year and they did a good job.”
While Ellsworth, Del Santo and other veterans are moving on, Gamblin and the returning players will be back, looking to build off the experience of reaching back-to-back nationals. When asked what the biggest takeaways from the experience was, he responded: “Everything…lots to learn always.”
While UPEI was just getting used to reaching nationals, one of the mainstays are the Saskatchewan Huskies. Under former Canadian women’s national team head coach Lisa Thomaidis, the Huskies had been to nationals 14 of the last 16 times. They won the national title twice in that span, in 2016 and 2020.
Saskatchewan travels with their own strong fan support – which showed up well at this tournament – but were going up against the home side and their boisterous crowd in the quarterfinals. The Queen’s ARC was buzzing as the Gaels took hit their shots, made stops and took a double-digit lead into halftime.
Saskatchewan made a run in the second half to retake the lead but couldn’t score down the stretch when it mattered most. Suddenly, the defending champions found themselves on the losing end. “We couldn’t knock down open looks tonight,” Thomaidis noted. “We left a lot of points at the free throw line. You know, shots that we normally make under the basket weren’t falling for us.”
She credited the Gaels for disrupting some of the things they wanted to do offensively. Coincidentally (or not), Meadows was a former Saskatchewan assistant who’s coached many of the Huskies players. “I think we played a really phenomenal Queen’s team,” guard Carly Ahlstrom said. “They hit a lot of shots.” Queen’s outshot Saskatchewan from the three, the field and the free throw line.
After the loss, the focus shifted to showing to the public and to themselves the type of team they were capable of being. The Huskies did that with dominant wins over Laval and UPEI.
While the seniors such as Summer Masikewich and Libby Epoch got a final send-off on their university careers, young players such as Tea DeMong, Gage Grassick and others showed what they could do. Thomaidis praised the seniors’ leadership and called the experience a massive one for the youngsters. “I’m really proud and I’m really looking forward to the future of Huskie basketball,” Masikewich said. “It’s very bright.”
The present marks the end of the road for Masikewich, a national champion, multiple time Canada West champion and U Sports All-Canadian. She said she was proud of the team and is grateful for her Saskatchewan career. She added that she’ll miss her teammates the most. “As a team, you build your little family and you’re with them from day one until today,” she added. “I will just miss being on court with them every day, practising and just sharing our love and joy of basketball together.”
While Masikewich and the Huskies were trying to repeat as champions, the Brock Badgers were trying to make history. The Badgers had won the OUA title in 2020 and finished second at nationals but said farewell to veteran stalwarts Melissa Tatti and Jessica Morris.
When the 2021-22 season rolled around, fifth-year senior Mackenzie Robinson, transfers Ivana Twumasi and Victoria Lawrence, returning veteran Jenneke Pilling and others were taking on main roles. Brock had been through its ups and downs with star forward Sam Keltos leaving for Australia and having their final regular season games cancelled due to COVID.
After blowing a 22-point lead in the Critelli Cup finals and losing in overtime against the Rams, Kingston provided a chance for redemption. It provided a chance to win their first-ever national title. The Badgers got out to a strong lead against Acadia in the quarterfinals but held on for the victory as the Axewomen made a second half push.
They weathered Axewomen comeback. “We’ve been there before so we got a lot of practice,” head coach Mike Rao said. “Today, we just made some plays at the end.”
He pointed to the Badgers’ ball-movement as a key to their success. “We can’t play one-on-one,” he added. “We’re just not capable but we could play five-on-five.”
A rematch loomed in the semis. Rookie standout Madalyn Weinert said she was super excited to play the Rams again.
Against the Rams, Weinert and her teammates kept the game close, answering every Rams basket and run with one of their own. With the seconds ticking down in the fourth – just like the previous week – the Badgers had a chance to win but couldn’t score. In overtime, the Rams pulled away thanks to five straight points by Jama Bin-Edward. Once again, Brock fell just short.
“I think our youth is a big difference,” Rao said. “The game bodes well for them. They played hard and [the Rams are] a very good team.”
Lawrence said while it wasn’t the result they wanted, they still played well as a team.
“Our defence kind of lacked a little bit and we weren’t rebounding as hard as much as we could,” she noted. “In the fourth quarter [we] really wanted it. We were going really hard, rebounding but those last-minute shots got us.”
After the bronze medal loss to the host Gaels, Rao said he was “very disappointed in the game, in all aspects.” However, despite the losses, the Badgers still made it back to nationals and came as close as ever to winning a Critelli Cup again and reaching a national championship finals. After building up to the breakout 2019-20 season – Rao took over after a 6-18 season in 2017-18 – perhaps this year showed Brock’s staying power as an OUA and national title contender going forward.
The theme for the host Queen’s Gaels during the tournament was belief. Despite their status as a number seven seed and despite their OUA quarterfinal exit, the Gaels had the belief they could play with the best come nationals.
When the games rolled around, they showed it. Meadows called it their best three games of the season. Supported by a loud home crowd, Queen’s battled back from an early deficit versus Saskatchewan to take the lead into halftime. They withstood the Huskies’ second-half push to prevail.
“It’s unbelievable,” exclaimed guard Emma Weltz. “It’s just a surreal surreal feeling.” Weltz played a big role, with 16 points and four assists.
“Unbelievably impressed with our team’s composure,” Meadows said. She added that playing a tough OUA schedule prepared them for the moment.
Against Winnipeg in the semis, they matched the Wesmen point for point before falling just short, 80-78. The Gaels held their own on the boards against a physical Winnipeg side (33 rebounds to 34 for Winnipeg) while shooting a strong 44 per cent from deep and 89.5 per cent from the free throw line. The following day, the Gaels carried that strong play to victory against Brock for a historic bronze medal, their first-ever medal at nationals.
While the players and coaches celebrated the moment – mobbing each other on the court afterwards with smiles on their faces – they also reflected on what this means for the program going forward.
“I think it’s going to drive us because we know that we can compete with the best,” third-year guard Isabella Belvedere noted. Known as a shooter, her hot shooting led the way as she hit six for 12 from downtown as part of her game-high 22 points against Brock. It marked a career-high in points for her.
Meadows called it a statement to who they are as a team. She said they can carry forward with them their approach to how they played. “We moved the ball well, we shared the ball well. Our defence for the most part was very good,” she added. “So what we carry forward from this is just confidence and belief that we’re working.”
The graduating seniors were also a fundamental part of the team, which showed at nationals. Weltz, Sophie de Goede, Laura Donovan, Emma Ritcey, Megan Saftich and Michelle Istead have all made their impact over the years at Queen’s.
de Goede, who also won a historic rugby national title this past fall, said she’ll miss her teammates on both teams and how tight they are as a group.
“Oh gosh. I genuinely can’t put into words how much I’ll miss it,” she said. “It makes me emotional thinking about it but I can’t wait to follow every single teammate that I’ve had here on their life journeys. Hopefully stay in touch and go for coffee down the road and reminisce about what a wonderful time we had here and just stay in each other’s lives.”
Meadows called it a tease coaching the seniors given that she’s only coached them for one season. “I know they’re going to go off and do some remarkable things,” she said. “They’re incredible people so I’m just so thrilled for them.”
The Winnipeg Wesmen also relied on their seniors in their run to the finals. Veterans Kyanna Giles, Robyn Boulanger, Jessica Dyck, Keylyn Filewich and Faith Hezekiah all played major roles as Winnipeg returned to the national title game. Filewich transferred from UBC and won U Sports Player of the Year. They were all hometown players as well – among 11 Winnipeggers on the team.
The Wesmen fell short in the Canada West semis versus Saskatchewan but bounced back at nationals, defeating Laval and Queen’s. They prevailed in a back-and-forth thriller versus the home Gaels.
Giles rolled her ankle late in the fourth quarter against Queen’s but went back in to help her team seal the victory. She scored 13 points and had seven rebounds and four assists. “Kyanna is the engine of our program,” head coach Tanya McKay said.
“I said ‘no I can’t’ [sit out], my team needs me,” Giles recalled. “One minute left, suck it up and get going.” The lone player with previous nationals experience, Giles transferred from Regina and battled back from an ACL tear. Now, she was going to face off against her twin sister, Rams guard Kyia, in the national finals.
The two sisters had played alongside each other at Regina and numerous school and club teams before that but were now facing off against each other for the first time competitively since then.
While Queen’s was fighting back to stay in the game, McKay and her team focused on keeping things simple. “Our motto all year was [doing] simple things well,” she noted.
For McKay, it represented a return to the national finals. McKay had won a national title as an assistant coach in 1993, working with legendary Winnipeg head coach Tom Kendall. She made it to nationals as a player and a head coach – taking over from Kendall in 1996 – but had yet to win one in her 26th season in the role.
“This means a lot for the program,” she said after the semis. “The University of Winnipeg has a deep history…it doesn’t matter what year it is. You want to be here. Every team wants to be here. This is a moment that you want and you want to embrace and feel and I’m just so proud of the kids.”
When asked by a reporter what Kendall would tell her going into the finals, she responded: “He would say, give it all you got. You did what it took to get here and keep it simple and go for it.”
McKay reflected on the contributions of Giles, Hezekiah and Filewich, who played together on the U17 Team Manitoba in 2015 that won a national title. Now, reunited again, they were one win away to capturing another national crown. “This is what they set out to do. This is why they came together and they embraced the group,” McKay said. “It’s a close-knit team. They work hard and they’re in the final chapter of their mission and that’s special.”
The finals against the Rams was a matchup of contrasting styles: Winnipeg’s traditional playing through the posts and in the paint versus the Rams’ versatile guard and three-ball heavy offence. “Strategically you make a decision,” McKay noted. “Do you stay with what you’re doing all season or do you change it to match.” She added they felt they could continue playing their style while throwing a few defensive wrinkles at the Rams.
The Rams took an early double-digit lead and it grew from there. By midway through the fourth quarter, the lead – and the national title – was out of reach. “We seemed to be playing catch up,” McKay said. “And we just couldn’t catch up.” Just over a week later, McKay returned home to Nova Scotia to take the Dalhousie head coaching position, marking the end of an era in Winnipeg.
When the buzzer sounded back in Kingston and the Rams players mobbed each on the court, Kyia Giles went over to console Kyanna with a hug before the two sisters sat on the bench together. “She’s going out with a bang her last year and I’m glad that she won,” Kyanna told the CBC. “If it wasn’t me, I’m 110 per cent happy that it was her, and we can embrace the moment together.”
Before the national finals, Rams head coach Carly Clarke said the team best at being themselves would win.
After the Rams’ defeated the Wesmen for the national title, Clarke said she was still processing the victory. The Rams showed their identity, particularly on defence. Against Brock, she and the coaching staff emphasized active hands. Against Winnipeg, their defence stood out again. “Our defence today was incredible and it fed our offence,” she added.
For the Rams, part of their identity was a resilience and togetherness through adversity. The team dealt with losing the OUA finals and an early exit at nationals in 2020 before losing last season. Individuals such as Giles, Jama Bin-Edward, Marin Scotten and others also battled through injuries. “So many individual stories and obviously the team’s story collectively too,” Clarke noted. “Just couldn’t be happier for them.”
A big part of their success was their dedication and focus. Clarke called it before a connection level like no other.
“The group’s commitment, the group’s belief, the group’s focus, preparation every single day,” added Urav Naik, the team’s student manager who focuses on basketball operations, video and analytics. “The attention to detail, whether that’s a film session, whether that’s practice or shoot [around]. You know, I’ve seen it all first-hand and this group has been unbelievably great in every aspect.”
Naik added that he’s seen the group grow and develop over time. Their success also comes from their mentality.
“It’s a championship mindset every single day,” said assistant coach Keenan Benarroch, who’s been with the team since 2019. “I felt like this team was champions before we won this game because they came out every day, they worked together, they worked as a team. And again, just can’t be more proud of them.” Part of that comes from having an environment where players could work hard and be committed to be incredible, according to him.
Benarroch has seen the now-veteran players grow and develop over the years. “It’s incredible to see where some of these girls were a couple of years ago to now,” he said.
Two of those players are Bin-Edward and Scotten. Bin-Edward recovered from a season-ending ACL tear in 2019-20 that kept her out until halfway through this season. Scotten was dealing with an injury this season into the playoffs and nationals but got on the court in the closing moments against Winnipeg. Now both players will finish their university careers as national champions.
When the buzzer sounded, the moment crystallized for Bin-Edward. “I just pictured, all throughout my entire year, all my five years here, this is the moment that I’ve wanted,” she said. “It’s just come to the perfect close on my career and I just could not be any happier.”
“I think I’m still a little bit in shock,” Scotten noted. “It was such an up and down journey here for myself but also for so many of us. Everyone’s had their individual battles and I think that’s what made us such a special team this year. We were all on the same page and knew what we were doing and it feels so good.”
She added while the past few weeks have been hard in terms of dealing with the injury, it was an amazing feeling seeing her team get out to a big lead against Winnipeg and to be on the court at the end. Her friends and family also made the trip to Kingston.
As Scotten spoke, the realization of what she and her team accomplished began to sink in. “I’m so grateful for my time here and for coach Carly especially,” she added. “To do this for her with the group of girls I’ve been here with since the start just feels so amazing. It’s so special. I honestly can’t believe that we did it.”
Scotten and her teammates and coaches celebrated into the night. The Rams had cemented themselves as national champions for the first time ever, bringing to an end a season like no other.
With Files from Queen’s Athletics.
Featured Image: James Paddle-Grant/Queen’s Athletics