The McGill Martlets women’s basketball team capped off a historic 2016-2017 season with a national championship win–the first in Martlet basketball history. Despite a dismal 2-5 start to the season, the coaching staff never lost faith in the team.
“[Coach Thorne’s] confidence is just beyond belief and you just feed off of it,” junior guard Frederique Potvin said. “Our coaches were confident from the start that we could win this whole thing and just needed us to be confident as well.”
The Martlets’ trainer—Danielle Dobney—was unphased by the slow start to the season. Trusting themselves to bounce back was key to McGill’s success in the second half of hte season.
“At times, I felt we didn’t believe we were as good as we were,” Dobney said. “Our confidence was low after some hard losses and it took a lot of work collectively from all of the players and staff to remind us of our abilities. It’s really hard to win a national championship, [but] you’ll never do it if you don’t believe you can.”
Dobney’s hard work both on and off the court preparing the team for every game was crucial to the Martlets’ championship run.
“I feel like I have to give a little shout out to [Dobney],” senior guard Frederique Potvin said. “From the beginning to the end, she was truly the one person that believed in us. She had a huge impact on the way our team got together in the end.”
Not having senior forward Jennifer Silver in the starting lineup due to a hand injury added to the shaky start to the season. In the 2015-16 season, she averaged 5.4 rebounds and 8 points per game. Withour Silver, Coach Thorne and company were forced to make changes on the fly, trying to build chemistry into their new lineups.
“It definitely took some time to adjust [after Silver’s injury],” senior centre Alex Kiss-Rusk said. “Silver gives that spark on the court, she really hustles every rebound. She’s more of a quiet leader, you follow her more by example than what she says because she works so hard.”
Silver’s energy on the court earned the respect of her fellow teammates, who look to her to push them to hustle.
“[She] is a fighter, she always goes [and] gets some boards, she’ll never give up,” Potvin said. “It just makes the team feel like everyone should do the same thing.”
Silver embraces her role on the court and looks to inspire her teammates to work harder.
“I’m definitely a lead-by-example type of player and I try to leave everything out there on the court,” Silver said. “I give my full energy to everything I do so as to never look back and wish I had.”
With Silver out, senior wing-player Marie-Love Michel was moved from playing out on the perimeter to playing inside the key. Despite standing only 5’9’’ tall, Michel relished her new role logging significant minutes matching up against significantly taller competition.
“She really embraced that role and really played it well. I think it was a huge positive that came out of it, as much as losing [Silver] hurt,” Kiss-Rusk said.
If anything, the slow start gave the Martlets underdog status, helping them to sneak through the RSEQ and into the U Sports playoffs as fourth-seed. Last year, they went into the CIS tournament—now called U Sports—the top-ranked team in the country, but were upset in the second round by the Ryerson Rams.
“A lot of [this year’s success] had to do with the pressure that wasn’t there that’s been there in the past,” Kiss-Rusk said. “Last year, we were ranked number one. There was ton of media coverage, we were the first [Martlets] team to be ranked number one in the history of McGill going into the tournament. There were a lot of expectations and I think that also affected the way our coaches were dealing with us. This year, [the reduced pressure] helped them be a lot more calm and be a lot more relaxed, and that really helped us stay relaxed.”
Laval was the first seed going into the playoffs and had only lost twice all year–both times against McGill. The teams split their season series and the stage was set for a grudge match in the finals. The Martlets had a tough third quarter where they were outscored 17-11 and clung to a slim one-point lead at the end.
“By the time we got to the fourth quarter, we knew that it was our game and we just had a bit of a tough run in the third,” Kiss-Rusk said.
Confidence remained high and the team stayed fixated on their goal of winning the national championship.
“In the fourth quarter, we literally all looked at each other and said; ‘What are we doing?’” Potvin said. “‘Let’s go, let’s get this,’ [and] we got the [win]!””
McGill’s swarming defence was another key to their 66-55 victory over Laval. The Martlets held the Rouge et Or to only 30.3 per cent shooting from the field and 27.6 per cent from beyond the arc. After playing Laval four times during the season, McGill knew they had to neutralize their shooters.
“We played [Laval] like four times during the season, so we know what they do best,” Potvin said. “Pretty much Laval-type basketball is they shoot the ball really well, so we had to contain them one-on-one so they wouldn’t beat us and create open threes.”
The McGill offence was led by hot three-point shooting, 40 per cent from deep. Their barrage from outside the arc was led by Guerin, the RSEQ’s best three-point shooter. In her last game as a Martlet, Guerin hit a team-high three triples to round off her 14 points.
“All season we worked on [our three-point shot],” Guerin said. “Sometimes you have games where even if you [practice] four times during the week […] you’re not going to make your shots. I think we felt comfortable in that gym—the whole weekend we were comfortable—and you could see it in the way we were scoring.”
However, it was Kiss-Rusk’s huge 15 points and 20 board stat line that really secured their victory.
“We felt we have a huge advantage inside with Alex and we have great shooters on the outside. Alex is a great player and really sees the court,” Silver said. “We played great inside-out basketball where Alex was the centre, scoring herself and setting up our teammates.”
With Kiss-Rusk dialled in in the first quarter, there was no looking back.
“Towards the beginning of the game, I got a board and then [had it] stripped, and [Coach Thorne] kind of pulled me aside and he [said], ‘If we’re gonna win this you’ve got to get them all,’” Kiss-Rusk said. “That kind of stuck with me for the rest of the game. My teammates did a good job of boxing-out and letting me go get some easy ones.”
Kiss-Rusk’s dominance was also appreciated by her teammates.
“You can give [Kiss-Rusk] some credit, nobody could guard her in there,” Potvin said.
Looking towards next season, two starters—Guerin and Silver—are graduating, so Thorne will need to make some adjustments. But compared to last season—when the Martlets lost four players—the core of the team will remain relatively intact. The future looks bright with young players who now have finals experience. Kiss-Rusk, for one, is sure McGill will continue to contend for championships.
“Every season the goal is to win a national championship,” Kiss-Rusk said. “We got it done this year and it’s gonna be the same goal next year. We’re gonna have to face the same challenges, people are gonna have to step up and fill different roles. But I think we’re certainly capable of [a repeat].”