“Gold Medal Details”: How McMaster women’s basketball is aiming for the top

Hamilton, ON- The McMaster Marauders women’s basketball season has been one of growth. The growth they’ve shown so far and also the growth they still have within them. 

It’s a team with its fair share of youngsters and veterans. It’s a team that started off the season with a tough start – playing three nationally-ranked squads in their first four matches. It’s a team that’s won 10 of their past 11 games and have moved into the U SPORTS Top 10 rankings for the first time this season, sitting first in the OUA Central division and fourth in the conference. 

“I really do feel we’re improving every game,” Marauders head coach Theresa Burns said. “There’s some facet of our game that’s gotten a little bit better each time we step on the court.” 

That improvement comes from players making better reads and decisions every time. The players see those reads now and quicker than before. They see the whole court rather than part of it, Burns pointed out.

They’ve learned and progressed during their recent victories. In a close game against a physical Laurentian Voyageurs team, they were challenged on the boards. Burns said she wasn’t happy with the team’s defensive or rebounding effort in the first half. 

The team talked about it at halftime. “We talk about it all the time,” Burns noted. “Rebounding is a commitment. There’s not a lot of skill to it necessarily. It’s just being committed to being gritty and being physical and getting after it.” 

The team did better in limiting Laurentian’s rebounding in second half – especially on the offensive end. The visitors had 12 offensive rebounds in the first half and seven in the second. They only had one in the final quarter as McMaster closed out the victory. 

Sarah Gates leads all of U SPORTS with 26.1 points-per-game (Photo: Kevin Lassel/McMaster Athletics)

Mindset plays an important role in grabbing those defensive rebounds. 

“Thinking as the ball’s going up, not just letting the ball come to you but turning and boxing out your player and getting in front of them,” guard Jenna Button said. “So there’s no way they’re going to get the ball over you and if they do, it’s going to be an over-the-back [foul].”

Guard Delaney Bourget called rebounding a collective effort and credited their positioning. It also comes from communicating and everyone being aware of their check (matchup) is, according to her.

Another strength for McMaster comes from their offence. When they’re rolling, they are pushing the ball on the fast break, sharing it and hitting threes and open shots. McMaster shot 41.9 per cent from deep and had 17 assists against Laurentian. Against Nipissing the following game, it was 41.2 per cent and 25 assists. 

Facing the Algoma Thunderbirds this past weekend, the Marauders won the rebounding battle 48-24 and had an impressive 29 assists on 35 made field goals in their 96-52 victory.

“You understand their habits, you know where they’re going to be on the court,” Mia Spadafora said. 

For Burns, ball movement is also about players moving their feet. 

“We do not want stationary pass receivers,” she said. “You cannot be stationary. You need to be moving to the ball, moving to the pass…when our feet stop moving, the ball stops moving. When the ball stops moving, you’re in trouble.” 

Bourget said it comes down to trust – between coaches and teammates. “If you’re open, it’s your shot to take,” she noted. “If you’re not open – you make that extra pass…we all trust each other to shoot when we’re open and that’s what makes it so successful.” 

Burns said it’s about taking the open shot. “There’s a green light for everybody as long as you are in proper spacing,” she added. 

The Marauders lead the OUA in three-pointers made and attempted. It’s part of their offensive approach. They are third in three-point percentage (32.4 per cent) and third in field goal percentage (41.1). 

They’ve shown depth as well. Five players are averaging over seven points. Four are shooting over 30 per cent from deep and four average over four rebounds. Fifth-year guard senior Sarah Gates leads U SPORTS in scoring (26.1 points-per-game) and leads the team in rebounding (8.1 per game).

Button is averaging a career-best 9.5 points and 3.06 assists in her third season. She finds she’s become mentally tougher every year, seeing the court and understanding the reads in front of her better.

“In my first year, I wouldn’t really be thinking and I would be panicked in certain situations,” Button said. “But now I feel more comfortable making the reads.” When her defender goes under a screen, she knows to take the shot. When her defender goes over a screen, she knows to attack the basket.

This is still a Marauders squad with plenty of youth. McMaster has a core of senior players (Gates, Spadafora, Clare Sharkey, Arianne Soriano) but also second-year players (Bourget, Deanna Mataseje, Cassie Joli-Coeur, Amy Stinson) that have become major contributors. 

Burns sees the second-year players learning all the time. “They’re so coachable. They want to learn. They listen. They really try to do what you’re telling them to do,” she continued. “So it translates on the court.” 

For Bourget, it’s a testament to their hard work this past summer.

“We all highlight each other’s strengths when we’re playing,” she noted. “So it’s easy for to look good when we’re all sharing the ball and working hard and playing as a team.” 

Burns became the second all-time winningest coach in U SPORTS women’s basketball history after their win over Brock on Jan. 18 (Photo: Marisa Settimi/McMaster Athletics)

So, what’s the next step? Keeping their focus during the game for 40 minutes, according to Burns. She said that consistent focus is crucial in deciding games against the likes of Ottawa, Queen’s and other OUA contenders. 

They try and work on that mental focus in practice. Burns said they talk about “Gold Medal details.”

“We want to be detailed enough to get to the gold medal game and win it,” she said. “You need gold medal details every day to be able to pull that off.” 

Those details come in practice from how players close out and rotate on defence, how they box out or how they space the floor, according to Burns. It comes from really focusing on those details, executing them and challenging each other to do the same in practice so it translates into games. 

For Burns, the coaches and the senior players, they’ve seen those details translate. They’e experienced that gold medal feeling, winning the OUA and national title in 2019. Now they’re looking to do so again. 

“We’re all excited to get one more chance here to do big things,” Spadafora said of the seniors. “Make a nationals push. To do all these amazing things we were able to do in our first and second year.”

Perhaps flashing back to the scenes at the OUA and U SPORTS finals in Ottawa and Toronto in the winter of 2019, when they celebrating with gold medals around their necks.

Featured Image: Kevin Lassel/McMaster Athletics

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