In playoff games, especially in basketball, one should always expect the unexpected. The McMaster women’s basketball team experienced a little taste of their own “March Madness” during the Ontario University Athletics Critelli Cup playoffs.
Leading up to the playoffs, the Marauders proved to not only to those watching but to themselves what they were made of. When several key players graduated at the end of last season, it was up to the mix of new veterans and younger players to step up to the plate.
“I think this season has been a growing experience for our team and an opportunity to prove what we have and how great our team truly is,” said fourth-year forward Linnaea Harper. “We are a lot stronger in our ability to score and play defence across the board, so overall we are more cohesive as a team this year.”
That cohesiveness began to solidify over the summer when the team went to Taiwan to compete in an invitational tournament.
“Having that stress-free time to play basketball with no pressure to win gave us more time to really bond and have fun with one another,” said Harper.
As the season went on, and the wins began to increase, this bond only became stronger.
“[My] last couple years have been amazing, but this year there was a different team connection and that connection off the court really helped with our chemistry on the court,” said fourth-year guard Hilary Hanaka. “Everyone was always so excited for one another, it did not matter who was scoring as long as they were in a McMaster jersey.”
The team’s handwork in the regular season was recognized as Hanaka was named an OUA First-Team All-Star and Harper an OUA Third-Team All-Star. First-year guard Sarah Gates was also recognized for her efforts, being named to the OUA All-Rookie Team.
“I knew I was having a good season but you never know with awards, so it was really a nice surprise,” said Gates.
With a regular season record of 20-4, the Marauders sat in first place in the OUA West Division by season’s end. After a well-deserved bye in the first round of the playoffs, the team regrouped to defeat the University of Western Mustangs 61-51 in the OUA quarter-final match.
The playoff madness began when the Marauders faced the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees, a team they had lost to by just two points earlier in the season. Going into that game, one of the Marauders’ biggest problems was the size mismatch with the Gee-Gees’ 6’5” forward Angela Ribarich.
“We knew we had to double her when she had the ball in the post and get them to prove that they can make their outside shot,” said Harper.
Brigette Lefebvre-Okankwu also posed a threat with 14 points, 11 rebounds and three steals, while guard Brooklynn McAlear-Fanus contributing 14 points of her own. The Marauders were ultimately able to pull away with the win thanks to Harper nailing both of her free throws in the last eight seconds of the game, sealing a 47-46 Marauder win.
“When I was shooting the free throws, I blocked out the idea that these were basically the biggest free throws of my life,” said Harper. “But after I got the first one and I heard the crowd roar I felt a wave of relief knowing that I tied the game.”
That roar of the crowd was the cheers of hundreds of McMaster athletes, students and supporters in the stands being the perfect soundtrack to the nail-biting win.
“It was a redemption game because we fell by only a few points the last time,” said Hanaka.
“We knew we could do it, and being excited both on and off the court and the huge crowd that came out to support was all a huge bonus for us. That’s a game that I will never forget.”
The win against Ottawa meant that for the first time in 11 years, the Marauders would host the Critelli Cup final with the undefeated Carleton Ravens as their opponent. The Marauders hoped to give the Ravens their first loss of the season, and by the end of the first half with Mac up 36-28, it looked like they could pull it off.
“We had a really great first half against Carleton and that felt really good,” said Harper. “I do not think Carleton has experienced a game like they did [in the OUA finals].”
But after the break, the Ravens came out strong with a 12-0 run and managed to stretch their lead.
By early in the fourth quarter, Mac had managed to bring the deficit down to two at 55-53, but unfortunately, Hanaka, who was already at three fouls, committed her fourth. Making the obvious but tough choice, head coach Theresa Burns took her out the game and the Ravens were able to bring the score back up to 60-53 before she returned.
“I was a little disappointed in myself to foul that late in the game knowing the next couple of minutes would be crucial for our team,” said Hanaka. “But I tried not to hang my head and not show my emotions, not only to my team but to the other team. I told myself If I’m going be on the bench I need to stay engaged and make sure I’m supporting my team in any way that I can.”
When she returned at the five-minute mark, she played carefully so that she would be able to contribute in the best way possible. With Hanaka back in, the Marauders managed to bring the deficit back down to a five, but unfortunate fouls from Mac and proficient shooting by the Ravens lost them the game.
Though the Critelli Cup final did not end how they would have wanted, the Marauders are still grateful to be in the position they are in.
“As much as it sucks to lose, I do not think our team is feeling defeated,” said Harper. “If anything, we should feel more confident knowing that we can complete it with the top teams in the nation.”
Making their first appearance in the national tournament since playing host in 2011, the U Sports Championship hosted by Regina is the next challenge for the Marauders.
“I’m super excited to go to nationals,” said Hanaka. “Our team has come together really nicely
as a unit right now, we just have that little extra fire when it comes time to play the big games at the U Sports championships.”
With the tournament schedule set, the Marauders will face McGill University’s Martlets to start the competition. The quarter-final match up will be the first time the two teams will face each other since Mac lost 59-70 in their first preseason game. Five months and over 20 wins later, the Marauders are more than ready for whatever nationals has to offer them.