It was a case of “third time’s the charm” for the women’s basketball team in their OUA Eastern final showdown with York on Feb. 24. The Lions had eliminated the Blues from the playoffs the previous two seasons, but U of T was determined not to let that happen again.
“They’ve played the same system now for the last three years, so we were getting used to it, and the players are slowly realizing what [York] is doing,” said Blues head coach Michelle Belanger, following her team’s 99-91 victory over their cross-town rivals. “They’re a such a good team,” Belanger said of York. “They’ve got some great scorers, and I think the ability for us to host this game at home was huge, to be in front of our home crowd was magical for the girls. “With the win, U of T now prepares to take on the McMaster Marauders in Saturday’s OUA championship, also to be played at home. In this battle of number-one seeds, Toronto (18-4 in the East) will play tough against the best from the West, as the Marauders finished the season with an impressive 21- 1 record. The Blues have not defeated McMaster in three years, and lost in their only meeting of the season, 66-58, on Nov. 15.In that game, the Blues had the lead going into halftime 36-34, but were outdone by a combination of sloppy play and a strong Marauder defence, surrendering with a season-high 34 turnovers, compared to only 20 for their opponents. Fifth-year McMaster centre Chiara Rocca had a strong performance, finishing with 18 points and 10 rebounds. Rocca, who is averaging 10 points and seven rebounds this season, is one of the Marauders top players, but has battled a foot injury all season, playing in only 11 games overall in 2007-08. She is one of the players U of T should keep an eye on if they want to take their first OUA title since 2001.The key to this matchup will be strong guard play and good post defence from the Blues. After the 6’1” Rocca, four of McMaster’s other top five scorers are guards. Third-year point guard Taylor Smith, who didn’t play when the teams last met in November, is now averaging 12 points and four rebounds in 2007, while two-time West player of the year, Lindsay Degroot is averaging 19 points a game (third overall in the OUA).“They’ve got a very good mix of players, and we’re going to have to force them to go to their bench, and see how deep they can really play,” Belanger said of McMaster. Both Toronto and McMaster are high-scoring teams, who can easily put the ball in the basket. The Blues are averaging 88 points a game this season, while the Marauders are right behind them at 87. The win will be determined by who can make the most defensive stops and limit the scoring opportunities of the other team’s star players. “We expect a similar game from Toronto as we saw in November,” said McMaster head coach Theresa Burns of their opponents. “Whoever makes the least mistakes and is most effective in creating chances for their top scorers will come out on top.”“We will need to limit Christine Cho’s chances, as well as contain Alaine Hutton. They are both outstanding players and you generally can’t completely shut down that type of player. If we can limit them or keep them in check, we feel we can be successful.”The Blues have a great deal of experience on their roster this season. This showed in their eastern final win over the York Lions, where the Blues trailed for most of the game and came back on the strength of their defensive play.“I think we’re starting to find ourselves as a team and find our chemistry,” said forward Laila Bellony, following the game. “A lot of the time we were concentrating too much on what the other team was doing, instead of playing our game and finding each other.”Bellony, who is one of five Toronto players in their fifth and final year of eligibility, led the Blues with 21 points and 14 rebounds against York. Her defence was equally important for Toronto, who had troubles containing York star forward Emily Van Hoof (25 points and 13 rebounds). Toronto trailed at the half 43-40.“We had trouble getting our defence going, but when we started to play better defence it was outstanding,” said coach Belanger.Belanger, who is currently in her 27th year at the helm, has seen her team grow over the span of a single season: “They really persevered, they’ve played outstanding all year round, and really bought into the system. I’m really proud of each and every one of them.”When asked about how her team was able to make such a remarkable comeback, the coach said: “We never lost confidence in each other, we always knew there was an ability for us to pull it out of the bag, and I just said, ‘there’s four minutes left, we have to go hard here,’ and they did. And you know what, we made it happen.”The key play of the game occurred with less than thirty seconds left. With her team trailing by three points, fifth-year guard Kyla Burwash hit a tying three-pointer to send the game into overtime, where the Blues would take over for good on the way to a 99-91 win.“I think the turning point of the game was that threepoint shot,” said Bellony, who took home player honours. “I think that took the air out of York a little bit.”“When the momentum shifted in our favour, I just said, ‘we’re not letting this go, this is ours now.”Burwash, who finished the game with 20 points, showed veteran poise in making what was possibly the biggest shot of her career: “Honestly I didn’t think a whole lot about it, it was just automatic, like any other play in the game. The ball comes to you and you’re open; you’re going to take the shot.”If the Blues are going to beat the McMaster Marauders this weekend, they will need one more inspired performance like the one they just had against York.TIP OFF TIME 5 P.M.