U SPORTS WBB Final 8 Preview: Winds of Change Blowing in Sydney?

Hamilton, ON- With this year’s U SPORTS women’s basketball Final 8 field set, one thing stands out from last year: the different teams. Three of the four semi-finalists from 2022 are gone. The only teams returning from last year’s nationals are Queen’s and Acadia. 

Also, five of the eight teams have never won a national championship and among the three who have (Carleton, Alberta, Calgary), only Carleton has done so in 21st century (2018). Could a new champion be crowned?

The field is different than perhaps anticipated earlier in the season. The conference playoffs meant several teams that were in the U SPORTS Top 10 throughout the year didn’t make it – Saskatchewan, Regina, Bishop’s, Ottawa among others. Here’s a look at each of the teams that did. 

Carleton’s Emma Kiesekamp (Photo: Carleton Athletics)

1.Carleton Ravens (OUA Champion) (26-6 Overall Record) 

The Ravens reached the OUA semifinals last year before losing to TMU. Now, they have taken another step forward as OUA champions. Carleton is also coming in as hot as any team in the nation, having won 16 of their past 17 games. This run includes wins over Queen’s (twice), Ottawa, TMU and McMaster. 

Carleton is led by OUA First-Team All-Star point guard Kali Pocrnic, who leads the team in scoring with 16.3 points per game. OUA Rookie of the Year Jacqueline Urban has come in and made a sizable impact with her scoring, rebounding and all-around play. Guard Dorcas Buisa was also named an OUA Third-Team All-Star. 

The last time the Ravens were the number one seed and defending OUA champions? 2018, when they went undefeated through the regular season and post season to win the Critelli Cup and Final 8. Forward Emma Kiesekamp is the only remaining player from that year’s team and has been a solid defensive anchor for them ever since. 

Alberta’s Emma Kary (Photo: Brad Hamilton/Alberta Athletics)

2. Alberta Pandas (Canada West Champion) (22-9) 

It’s amazing to think that given all the Pandas’ success recently, this year was their first-ever Canada West title. Alberta did so by knocking off nationally-ranked opponents in UFV, Saskatchewan and then Calgary. The Pandas reached nationals most recently in 2020 but bowed out after losing two games. 

This year’s squad will look to go further. They have the number two seed and are led by veterans and Canada West All-Stars Emma Kary and Claire Signatovich. Kary was injured the last time the Pandas reached nationals while Signatovich was named the Canada West Defensive Player of the Year this season. Their defence is their strength: they are ranked third in the conference in fewest points allowed per game (62) and they are second in margin between average points scored and points allowed (12.1). 

The Pandas will be in tough against an Acadia Axewomen team that’s been nationally ranked throughout the year but given the path they’ve been on to get to this point, it’s just another tough opponent. 

Queen’s Julia Chadwick (Photo: James Paddle-Grant/Queen’s Athletics)

3. Queen’s Gaels (OUA Finalist) (27-5) 

For most of the OUA season, the Gaels were the class of the conference. They had built off their historic bronze medal at nationals the season prior. They brought back many key players and have a “special” culture in place. 

Then, they went out and finished a program-best 21-1 and reached the OUA finals. Julia Chadwick, Laura Donovan, Isabella Gaudet and Bridget Mulholland finished with conference honours and awards. Claire Meadows won OUA Coach of the Year. 

Their only losses were to the Carleton Ravens. Queen’s lost to Carleton 64-32 on the road in the regular season and 70-57 in the OUA Finals at home. Despite the loss, the Gaels still have the number three seed and hold as good of a chance as any of winning the program’s first national title. 

Perhaps their experience from last year – when they knocked off Saskatchewan and pushed Winnipeg to the edge – will serve them well this time around. Perhaps they will have their chance to avenge their losses to the Ravens. 

Saint Mary’s Alaina McMillan (Photo: SMU Athletics)

4. Saint Mary’s Huskies (AUS Champion) (19-7) 

The Saint Mary’s Huskies came into the AUS final against Acadia as the underdog but were not deterred as they beat Acadia 68-56. They’ve beaten the Axewomen once previously this season and are second to them in offensive efficiency and net efficiency in the AUS. 

It’s their first appearance at nationals since 2016. They’ve been powered by guard AUS All-Star and Tournament MVP Alaina McMillan (who scored 20 points in the final) and AUS Defensive Player of the Year Clara Gascoigne.

The Huskies have also been aided by the contributions of transfers in AUS All-Star Sophia Widmeyer (Providence, New Hampshire) and Courtney Donaldson (Calgary). It’s fitting given they will be facing Donaldson’s former team in the quarterfinals. They’re also coming into it on a six-game winning run. 

Calgary’s Louise Rouse (Photo: Chris Lindsey/Calgary Athletics)

5. Calgary Dinos (Canada West Finalist) (20-11) 

The Dinos have been a consistent contender in Canada West under head coach Damian Jennings. They’ve entered nationals through the At-Large berth before and now enter with the automatic berth, having reached the Canada West finals before losing to Alberta. Calgary did so with wins over Winnipeg and Regina in the Canada West playoffs. 

It’s a team with a mix of youth and veteran experience. First-year forward Louise Rouse (member of Canada West All-Rookie Team) and second-year guard Annacy Palmer (Canada West All-Star) are their two leading scorers. They are joined by second-year guard Pollyanne Storie and fifth-years Mackenzie Trpcic, Madison Landry and Bobbi-Jo Colburn. 

As has been the case with previous Dinos squads, there’s quite a bit of international flavour with Storie, Rouse and Elina Siceva. The Dinos won the consolation finals in 2018 and 2020. Will this be the year they reach or win the championship final instead? 

UQAM’s Fredlyne (left) and Fredlaine Verrier (Photo: UQAM Athletics)

6. UQAM Citadins (RSEQ Champion) (14-10)

The UQAM Citadins reached nationals for only the second time ever. They did so in dramatic fashion, defeating the Laval Rouge et Or on a last second three before knocking off the Bishop’s Gaiters on the road. This came after losing to the Gaiters four times in the regular season. 

The good news for the Citadins is they have some experience playing against some of the Final 8 teams already. UQAM defeated Carleton on the road in overtime in the preseason and lost to Queen’s 79-63 – their quarterfinal opponent. 

For UQAM to win that game and make a run, they will likely rely upon twin sisters Fredlaine and Fredlyne Verrier. They were both RSEQ All-Stars and are the team’s two leading scorers and rebounders. Fellow RSEQ All-Star Alexe Dufresne is also a scoring threat as well as RSEQ All-Rookie team member Yasmine Gasmi. 

All in all, it’s a relatively young team – eight of their 10 players are in their first or second year – that should benefit from the experience of playing on the national stage. 

Acadia’s Elizabeth Iseyemi (Photo: Nick Pearce/Atlantic University Sport)

7. Acadia Axewomen (At-Large berth) (22-4) 

Acadia comes into this tournament as the great wild card – literally and figuratively. They earned the At-large berth after losing the AUS finals to Saint Mary’s. While Jayda Veinot is gone from last year’s squad, program legend Hayley McDonald returned for her final season. McDonald did so in style, winning AUS Player of the Year. Her role will be as crucial as any in determining how far the Axewomen can go. 

McDonald’s teammates will also play significant roles. Third-year forward Elizabeth Iseyemi continues to improve and finished as Acadia’s top rebounder, second-leading scorer and an AUS All-Star. Samantha Russell, Sarah Delorey and Sandy Saunders all return from last year’s nationals team. Meanwhile, German guard Bianca Helmig has had a standout rookie season, winning AUS Rookie of the Year. 

The Axewomen have been ranked in the U SPORTS Top 10 for most of the season. They’ve been the top team in the AUS regular season. This marks the fourth nationals appearance in the past five seasons. They haven’t been able to reach the semifinals though. This could be the year that changes. 

Cape Breton’s Kiyara Letlow (Photo: Vaughan Merchant/CBU Athletics)

8. Cape Breton Capers (Host) (14-16) 

The Capers come into this tournament as the host team. This will be their eighth appearance at nationals and first since 2017. Cape Breton will have home court advantage on their side. However, they have had an up-and-down season, finishing with a 14-16 overall record and losing to the UPEI Panthers in the AUS quarterfinals.

On the bright side, they have some important players that could help them make some noise – and at arguably two of the most important positions. Forward Kiyara Letlow was named the U SPORTS Rookie of the Year last year while following it up with a stellar sophomore campaign. The AUS All-Star is averaging 20.6 points and 16.2 rebounds while playing 33.8 minutes on average. 

She is joined by fellow AUS All-Star point guard Mackenzee Ryan, guard Chermensa van la Parra and AUS All-Rookie team forward Darah Fleurgin. Led by Letlow, the Capers also have an advantage on the glass, leading their conference with 42 rebounds per game – including 12.3 offensive ones. 

Note: A previous version of the story incorrectly stated Cape Breton’s number of nationals appearances and has since been correctly. 49 Sports regrets the error.

Featured Image: SMU Athletics

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