After two silver medals in a row the women’s basketball team finally ends the season atop the PACWEST
Justin Scott // managing editor
After two straight Pacific Western Athletic Association (PACWEST) silver medals, the Capilano University Blues women’s basketball team has finally achieved their goal of winning PACWEST gold and securing their trip to the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA)’s national tournament in Sackville, New Brunswick.
Their road to gold was an exciting one. Finishing second in the PACWEST’s regular season, the team secured a first round bye, meaning their first game of the tournament was the semi-final match against the Vancouver Island University (VIU) Mariners.
A close game from the start, it came down to the final play. After team co-captain Carmelle M’Bikata hit a crucial free throw to break the game’s tie with just seconds left, a steal gave the Mariners one last shot. “It all happened so fast,” M’Bikata said. “The girl was on the three, then she passed it in and then I was just right there.”
At that moment M’Bikata made one of the biggest plays of her Blues career. With the game on the line and a Mariner with the ball just a few feet from the hoop, the Blues PACWEST First Team All-Star ensured that her team would be in the finals. “I just put my hands up and I blocked it,” M’Bikata recalled. And just like that, the team was one game away from gold. “We didn’t have our best game ever, but we stuck in it and gave ourselves a chance to win,” said assistant coach Chris Weimer.
Saturday’s final against the Camosun College Chargers was a display on how focused the Blues were. “We played the perfect first half, probably the best half of basketball we played, maybe in my career coaching here,” Weimer said. After an impressive first quarter that saw the Blues take a six-point lead, the team really turned it up in the second quarter. Holding the Chargers to just three points, the Blues defence was impenetrable. The week before the tournament, the team had focussed on their defense – emphasizing communication. “During practice we were going over how our communication really has to be on top and we have to be loud so we can hear each other,” M’Bikata explained. Every time the Chargers called out a play, the Blues would also call it out, ensuring every player on the floor knew exactly what was coming. However, it wasn’t just the Blues on the court who were impacting the game. “The bench was really hype for us which really helped us,” M’Bikata added.
Going into half time with a 17-point lead and a defence firing on all cylinders, the game looked to be over. However, as the second half began, it was clear that it wouldn’t be a repeat of the first two quarters. Chargers started putting points on the board, eventually outscoring the Blues 20-18 in the third quarter. “We had to keep it exciting for the fans,” Weimer joked.
Still, going into the fourth quarter up 15 points, things were looking good. After trading baskets for the majority of the final frame, it was clear that the Chargers knew they were running out of time, and with just minutes left, they mounted their final push. “They heated up, I think they hit four threes in the last minute,” Weimer said. Chargers guard Aija Salvador caught fire, hitting almost any shot she took. Quickly, the Blues comfortable lead was diminishing. Still focused on gold though, the Blues remained composed. “Whenever we had a chance to huddle, we kept telling ourselves, ‘one possession at a time, don’t worry about the score and the clock, just stay calm and also be strong with the ball,’” M’Bikata said.
It worked. Guards Ashley dela Cruz Yip and Emma Cunningham were clutch down the stretch, hitting their free throws once Camosun started fouling. Although the Chargers outscored the Blues 36-26 in the final frame, it wasn’t enough, and the Blues won. The week before the tournament dela Cruz Yip made a very accurate prediction. “This whole season I’ve had this vision of us winning and then me crying of how happy I am. I haven’t had that kind of emotion in a win in a really long time,” she said. And cry she did. In a scene of true excitement and celebration, the team stormed the court as the buzzer went – they were the champions.
And the gold medal and 2018 PACWEST title wasn’t the only hardware the Blues went home with. Cunningham was named a tournament All-Star and after a monster final where she posted 26 points, 16 rebounds, two steals and two blocks, there was no doubt that M’Bikata was the Tournament MVP. “When she plays like that there’s not many teams that have an answer for her,” Weimer said. “They just have to hope that she misses or nobody else on our team scores.”
For the team, the victory was almost as much of a relief as it was a celebration. “We finally did it,” M’Bikata said. “We’ve gotten silver twice, we finally broke the seal and got gold.” For Weimer, who’s been coaching at CapU for the past six years, the win was sweet. “That was the fourth final we’ve been in. So, I’ve got three silvers, so it was nice to finally get that gold,” he said. “It felt really good, it was a bit of a relief because I feel that we deserved maybe in a couple other years and we just came up a little bit short.”
With the PACWEST title now in their pockets, the Blues have now set their focus on the upcoming national tournament. With a first round matchup against a sizable Dawson Blues, the two teams will square off Thursday at 4 P.M. PST. A game the team is working hard to prepare for. “We just have to refocus, it’s going to be a whole different ball game out there,” Weimer explained. And while the competition level will certainly be high, the team is looking forward to the challenge. “We’re going to have to use our quickness, our defence and hit shots to beat that team (Dawson). It’s going to be a challenge but I think the girls are all excited,” Weimer continued. Although Head Coach Ramin Sadaghiani and Weimer have discussed “a couple of ideas to throw at them,” Weimer believes it’s what the team has seen success in all year that will be the key to their game. “We want to shoot the ball well, we want to use our speed when we get up and down the court and play great defence.”
Regardless of how their national tournament goes, the Blues women’s basketball team has made CapU and themselves proud.