Hamilton, ON- Was this the moment everything would change? Things had been going well for the McMaster Marauders women’s basketball team up until then – or at least as well as you could hope for in a tough playoff game. A nail-biter, as playoff games usually are, Marauders head coach Theresa Burns called it.
The Marauders and Guelph Gryphons were in a tight battle throughout the first half in their OUA quarterfinals on Feb. 25. Then, McMaster started to gain separation. They were leading 46-39 midway through the third quarter after U SPORTS leading scorer Sarah Gates scored at the rim again. Then, she committed a foul. It was her fourth personal – sending her to the bench.
“When the leading scorer in the country goes out, the whole gym thinks ‘uh oh’,” Burns noted. “Our team responded. We’ve said all year, every single person on this roster contributes…I thought our team held the charge.”
Guard Jenna Button – who subbed Gates off – recalls the players coming together and saying: “It’s fine. Don’t panic. Let’s play our game. The clock’s in our favour. We’re good.” They focused on playing controlled and together.
With Gates on the bench, the Marauders stepped up and made plays. Whether it was forward Clare Sharkey’s interior scoring and defence, point guard Arianne Soriano’s rebounding and forward Cassie Joli-Coeur’s jump shots, McMaster kept the game in check. Meanwhile, Button added 15 points and six rebounds.
Gates was itching to get onto the court but as she watched her teammates perform, she felt something else.
“It’s amazing seeing the lead continue to build and seeing people have such nice moves to the net, huge shots in a tense game like that,” Gates noted. “It’s huge.”
When Gates subbed back almost a whole quarter later, the game was tied at 61. The Gryphons got hot from three to tie it but the point difference was the same as the opening tip. The game was still in front of both teams.
Then, McMaster closed it out. They did so especially on defence, holding Guelph to only two points in the final six-plus minutes while scoring nine themselves.
Burns said their attention and execution of details got better in the final stretch. From having hands up on shooters, box outs, ripping down boards and more. They stopped their check (defensive assignment), which lessened the pressure on having help defence, according to her. They also made good offensive decisions.
“Knowing that under pressure, when everybody’s gassed on both teams,” she added. “That we can kind of dig deep and find reserves and just play with poise and play smart is…I’m just really proud of the group right now.”
While McMaster missed its share of three-pointers in the fourth quarter, they continued to shoot. They also continued to crash the glass on both ends, hauling in offensive rebounds to keep possessions alive and defensive rebounds to stop Guelph’s possession and spring them onto the fast break. McMaster finished with 31 defensive rebounds and 13 offensive ones (compared to Guelph’s 28 and 10).
“D boards win games,” Burns noted. “When you don’t give another team a second chance. D boards are the beginning of our transition and we’re good when we run.”
The Marauders snatched rebound after rebound and took it the other way. At times scoring in transition. At times scoring from the free throw line. At times, scoring inside as Gates did– part of her 29 points, eight rebounds, three blocks performance – to make it 66-64. Amy Stinson grabbed a defensive rebound on the next possession while Button and Mia Spadafora made free throws to seal the 70-63 victory. Gates added a final block as well.
Gates said they’ve been inching closer to playing 40-minute games. The closing of this game was an example of that. “We kind of had that urgency on defence to know that…we’re going to get a stop and they’re not going to score,” she said.
“Our defence is what builds and makes our offence,” Button added. She said they tried to stay as calm as possible down the stretch.
With this playoff victory under their belts, it provided an important learning experience. “We bent but we didn’t break,” Gates told her teammates in the team room afterwards.
She said they adjusted on the fly and kept their heads up through Guelph’s runs. Button said the biggest thing was they stopped Guelph’s runs quickly.
Now comes the task of stopping the Carleton Ravens’ runs in the OUA semi-finals on Mar. 1. The Ravens – who finished second in the OUA with a 19-3 record – defeated the Marauders in Ottawa 73-57 on Nov. 5. Almost four months have passed since then. The winner earns a spot in the OUA finals and nationals. The loser sees their season come to an end.
Burns said their focus will be on recovery and specific preparation and film on their opponents. Gates said the team needs to keep their energy high to continue their playoff run.
“We know we want it. We know it,” she continued. “We know we can feel the energy and we can get there so we [have to] just kind of keep believing in ourselves and pushing hard.”
Featured Image: Kevin Lassel/McMaster Athletics