There is a basket at Mitchell Gym in Lennoxville, QC that needs new mesh. The old netting is now in the possession of Head Coach Ryan Thorne and the Martlet basketball team following a thrilling 53-51 win over the UQÀM Citadins Saturday afternoon that gave McGill its fourth consecutive conference title.
The game itself was one for the ages, featuring 15 lead changes, with the final—and ultimately decisive—shift coming with less than a minute to play in the fourth quarter. Down by one point, junior forward and game MVP Mariam Sylla worked her way to the hoop to drain the game-winning basket, putting home a lay-up with 26 seconds to play. She would make a free throw with a couple seconds left to reach a season-high of 25 points in addition to 14 rebounds for the double-double.
“I thought the way [Sylla] played was consistent with how she played all year,” Thorne said. “It’s kind of what we expect from her. I think she was pretty poised down the stretch and when things were a bit in question, that’s who we went through. She’s one of our leaders. She’s a captain, and she’s our best player, and when it comes down to it [Sylla] is [who] you go [to.]”
Great players come through when their teams need them most, and Sylla did just that, dropping eight points in the final 6:22 of the fourth quarter to help push the Martlets past the Citadins. McGill was forced to lean especially hard on Sylla following an injury to junior centre Alex Kiss-Rusk early on.
Kiss-Rusk has been a consistent contributor for the Martlets down the stretch this season, and was McGill’s second-leading scorer after Sylla in its semifinal victory over Laval two days prior.
“It definitely affected the rotation and […] I think that was the biggest adjustment,” Thorne said. “I think that the players [who] step in […] have a pretty good understanding of what needs to be done—the fundamentals, and the basics of what we do [….] Losing that length affected the defensive side of our game and our inside scoring, but overall, it was pretty much a bit of a next-man-up situation.”
Beyond Sylla, the Martlets had a difficult time making shots, shooting only 33.3 per cent from the field. Not including Sylla, McGill shot a combined 26.8 per cent, including just one make on 15 tries from beyond the arc. UQÀM fared only slightly better, shooting 34.4 per cent as a team. It was McGill’s ability to get to the free-throw line and convert that gave them the edge, hitting 14 of 21 free throws compared to UQÀM’s eight of 15.
Senior forward Gabriela Hebert and freshman point guard Marika Guerin both stepped up in Kiss-Rusk’s absence, contributing nine points apiece in 28 and 24 minutes of playing time, respectively. Hebert also pulled down six rebounds. Those kinds of performances will be important for the Martlets with the CIS Final 8 tournament beginning on March 12 and Kiss-Rusk’s health in question.
Despite this added adversity, the Martlets should feel very comfortable entering nationals. McGill has reached the tournament in each of the past three seasons, losing just a single game this season. That being said, it has been almost 20 years since the program has earned a medal in the CIS tournament, with the 1996 squad taking home a bronze.
This group may be McGill’s strongest in recent memory. Although an RSEQ Championship banner sure is sweet, the allure of a CIS gold medal is far greater. It is a tall order to come out on top in this final tournament, but it is one that the Martlets no doubt feel ready to take on.