by Andrew Wallace, UBC Sports Info

The UBC women’s basketball
team is set to host the Canada West Final Four for the second straight
year this weekend, welcoming SFU, Alberta and Winnipeg to War Memorial
Gym with three berths into the CIS championship on the line.

top-ranked Thunderbirds kick off play against the Wesmen Friday at 6:15
p.m., before the second-ranked Clan battle the fourth-ranked Pandas at
8:00 p.m. The medal round goes Saturday with the gold medal match
scheduled for 7 p.m. following the bronze medal game at 5 p.m. The
national tournament runs March 9–11 at Memorial University in St.
John’s, Newfoundland.

The competition is always stiff in the Canada West and this year’s Final Four promises to be no different. Four of the top seven and three of the top four teams in the country will hit the hardwood, and all four squads have a legitimate shot at taking home the conference crown. UBC is the early favourite, coming off a big-time series sweep of their cross-town rivals last weekend, whereas Alberta and Winnipeg were taken to the limit in their respective division finals.

UBC Thunderbirds (21-2 CW, 4-0 playoffs)

The T-Birds enter the action hot off an emotional defeat of the Clan last weekend and undefeated thus far in the postseason, having handled UCFV with relative ease to open playoffs two weeks ago. The defending national champions have not lost a postseason contest since falling 70-65 to Saskatchewan in the Canada West final last year and boast the conference’s top-rated defence, arguably the most important aspect of the game in the proverbial “second season.”

Erica McGuinness has led the T-Birds on the offensive end in three of four playoff tilts after averaging 17 points per game during the regular season. The fourth-year guard was up to her old tricks in crunch time once again against SFU, scoring seven of UBC’s last eight points in a 73-67 win in Game 1 before nailing the go-ahead basket in a 58-55 triumph in Game 2. Kelsey Blair, who finished fifth in conference scoring at 15.7 points per game, was held relatively silent by the Clan’s imposing forward corps but was the CIS Tournament MVP last year and has proven she can come through when it counts.

“We were pretty happy with our effort last weekend and we won a hard-fought battle,” said UBC head coach Deb Huband. “It’s just one step in the challenge of the postseason. But this time a lot more is on the line with three berths at nationals up for grabs and four very strong teams taking the floor. We want to peak at the right time and our team is getting better and better.”

Yet while McGuinness and Blair have consistently been UBC’s top threats, the T-Birds depth and versatility also played a pivotal role last weekend. Rookie guards Devan Lisson and Megan Pinske came in the off the bench to give their side quality minutes, while senior forward Kim Howe stepped up and played solid on both ends of floor. Cait Haggarty also made her presence felt, hitting a runner in the paint in the dying seconds of the final frame to clinch the victory in Game 2.

“We had a lot of solid performance from a lot of people last weekend,” noted Huband. “Erica’s been outstanding all year but we also had Haggarty and Howe really step up for us. There were times when we had different people struggling at different points and somebody always filled the void. I thought it was a really great team performance with contributions from a lot of places. That’s going to be an important commodity down the stretch.”

The Point Grey squad has beaten their Burnaby Mountain rivals seven of the last eight times the two teams met and prevailed against both the Wesmen (W 80-70) and the Pandas (W 71-68) in head-to-head action in conference play this year. UBC and Winnipeg also clashed in the opening round the Canada West Final Four last season with the T-Birds coming out on top 60-55.

Alberta Pandas (16-6, 2-1 playoffs)

The Pandas come to the Point Grey campus fresh off a big win against Saskatchewan in the Central Division finals and ready to challenge for their first appearance at the national tournament since 2000-2001.

During the regular season Alberta showcased a balanced line up led by Michelle Smith, who upped her conference scoring mark of 12 points per game to 18.3 in the best-of-three series with the Huskies. Kristin Jarock and Ashley Wigg also played a prominent role on the attack for the Pandas, averaging 11.8 and 11.5 points per game, respectively, in Canada West action, while Patricia Ariss has been Alberta’s top rebounder in both the regular season and playoffs.

The Edmonton squad kept it close against the weekend’s competitors in conference play, dropping contests with UBC and SFU by 10 points or less while downing Winnipeg 84-77.

Says Huband, “Their coach has them playing very well right now and they definitely play aggressive. They use their bench and they like to get out there and showcase their run-and-gun style. They had to beat a very good team to get here and are capable of beating anybody on any given night.”

Simon Fraser Clan (21-2 CW, 2-3 playoffs)

Always a contender for the Canada West crown, the Clan will be hungry to return to the form of 2004-05 when they captured their last national title. SFU snuck in the back door to the CIS tournament last year after being upset by Saskatchewan in the first round of the Final Four only to lose to the T-Birds in the national semifinals for the second time in three years.

The Clan, who earned the wild-card berth at this weekend’s tournament, have already played a pair of tough playoff series and their crew of talented rookies is quickly learning what it takes to succeed in the postseason. First-year forward Laurelle Weigl, who led her side with 14.2 points per game in conference play, has also been SFU’s biggest threat in the playoffs, while veterans Lani Gibbons and Julia Wilson played an important role in a 2-1 victory over Victoria in the Pacific Division semifinals.

Although Gibbons struggled to distribute the ball to her usual standard in Game 2 of the UBC series, the sparkplug guard is a proven performer and is the coordinating cog in the SFU offensive machine that averaged a conference-best 83.1 points per game. When the Clan met the Pandas during the regular season Weigl staked her side to a 75-65 win with a 28-point performance. Against Winnipeg, SFU escaped with a narrow 78-75 road victory.

Says Huband, “SFU is one of the best teams in the country and it’s great to have them in our division. They always give us high-intensity battles where they push us and as a result force us to be a better team. They’re going to add a great competitive element to the Final Four and they obviously have to be considered a favourite.”

Winnipeg Wesmen (14-8 CW, 2-1 playoffs)

Like Alberta, Winnipeg enters the weekend competition after a triumphant victory in their division final, beating nationally ranked Manitoba in three games to take the Great Plains Division title.

Uzo Asagwara, who led the nation in scoring during the regular season with 28 points per game, is the Wesmen’s most prominent player on the attack and can score from just about anywhere on the floor. The superstar guard went for 30-plus points on eight occasions in conference play – while rarely dropping less than 20 – and likes to beat her defender off the dribble or pull up on a moment’s notice from three-point land. She had 35 points against both SFU and Alberta while netting 24 versus UBC, yet all three totals came in a losing cause.

Forward Stephanie Timmersman and point guard Jenny Ezirim are the other two key components in Winnipeg’s run-and-gun offence, which finished fourth in the Canada West in scoring at 77.7 points per game. Ezirim is a quick and feisty player who can get it done on both sides of the ball while Timmersman plays a tough inside game and runs the floor very well.

Says Huband, “They’re an athletic team with one of the most explosive scorers in the country. They play a different style than most other teams which makes them a tough opponent who we know is going to be hungry to get back to nationals.”

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