WINNIPEG – Today could be a very historic one for a pair of university basketball teams in Winnipeg.
Both the Manitoba Bisons men’s team and Winnipeg Wesmen women’s team play their Canada West Final Four semifinal matches tonight, with a win clinching a spot at nationals.
The Bisons are back into the Final Four for the second straight year, bringing back virtually the same lineup from a season ago. Again they are matched up with the Calgary Dinos, the opponent that has ended their season two years running.
“This upcoming game is sort of like a repeat of last year, playing the semis, playing against Calgary, in their gym,” says fifth-year shooting guard AJ Basi. “The team has kept it pretty fresh in our minds, we remember what happened last year, and I think we’re better ready this year.”
There may be no hotter team in the country than the Bisons, having won 14 of 16 games since a 2-6 start. That includes a sweep of #2 UBC last weekend, and with a win tonight, the Bisons will advance to nationals for the first time since 1985.
“We’ve just gotten more ready. I don’t think last year’s team could have gone to UBC and won two games,” explains head coach Kirby Schepp. “I think from a mental and emotional standpoint, that’s always one of the cool things about college sports. You’re dealing with young men, sometimes they don’t handle the situations well. That’s the allure, it makes it more special when they do handle things well.”
Just a few miles up the road, the Wesmen’s story has also been incredible. Coming off an 8-12 season, coach Tanya McKay brought back virtually the same roster as last year, adding no rookies but one key transfer: Antoinette Miller.
Leading the team to an 18-2 record, Miller was named Canada West MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, and McKay earned Coach of the Year honours.
“Ant came in and really helped our program move forward to the next level. We became a very quick team, a transition team,” McKay says. “We were pressing teams full court, and then we just got rolling. I have three fifth-years and they adopted Ant. They welcomed her in, they had to make sacrifices, and overall, it was a team that came together and became very cohesive.”
Megan Noonan is one of the fifth-year players on the team, who last weekend was part of her first ever playoff win against Victoria. Now, she’s just one win away from booking a trip to Victoria for the Final 8, and offered all kinds of praise for her coach.
“She’s so deserving of it, I don’t think she gets enough recognition. She turned this program around. Props out to her, she really got all twelve of us to buy into her coaching philosophy. To do this in my last year, I couldn’t ask for more. This is kind of my last ride of basketball. I have a little bit of nerves, but I’m more excited than anything.”
Winnipeg has never won a Canada West title (they joined the league in 1999) and has not been to nationals since losing the gold medal match in 2005. Their opponent tonight is Regina, who they went 1-1 against in the regular season.
“I just felt like they wanted it more, the game that we lost. But the second game we won,” says Miller, who led the conference in scoring and assists. “They’re a good team, but I think we’re better.”
Winnipeg and Regina tip off at 8:15 p.m. in Saskatoon while Manitoba and Calgary start their matchup at 9 p.m. Both games can be streamed on canadawest.tv.