Brian Swane, Special to Canada West
EDMONTON - There are many welcome similarities for the Saskatchewan Huskies heading into this weekend's Canada West Women's Basketball Final Four.
The opponent and location, to name a couple, are the same as when they went on to capture their first Bronze Baby.
But there are differences between the Canada West Final Four of this year and last, too.
The student-athletes in uniform, to name several.
For a second consecutive year, Canada West's top women's basketball teams are converging at the University of Saskatchewan's Physical Activity Centre in pursuit of a conference title and a spot at the ArcelorMittal Dofasco U SPORTS Final 8.
The gold and bronze medal match-ups set for Saturday, with the finalists earning an automatic berth to nationals, which takes place March 9-12 at the University of Victoria.
As was the case in 2016, the Huskies will take on the Pandas in one semifinal, while the other pits the Regina Cougars, last year's silver medalists, against the Winnipeg Wesmen, who are making their deepest playoff run in a decade.
"It's remarkable that three of four teams are the same, because there were so many fifth-year athletes last year that were playing at such a high level that were cornerstones of their programs and led them to the Final Four, and all those players have cleared out," says Huskies coach Lisa Thomaidis. "As much as last year was probably the year of the fifth-year veteran, this year is more the year rookies have come in and made impacts on their teams."
Regina bid farewell to a trio of starters from its 2015-16 rotation, while Alberta graduated three key players, two of whom were Canada West all-stars. The biggest changes came with the defending champs, however, who turned over practically half their roster, including 2016 Canada West Outstanding Player Laura Dally, and Dalyce Emerson, MVP of the national championship.
"Regina has a few young players that have really stepped up, Alberta's had some rookies step in, and (we have) two rookies as starters in our lineup," Thomaidis says. "Winnipeg's probably the one team that isn't like that, they're a much more veteran group. They have a number of fourth-year and fifth-year players that have played together, so the time is right for them. They've peaked at the right time, come together and had a great year."
It was an intensely competitive season in Canada West, one that ended with just three wins separating the top five teams in the standings, and one win between sixth through ninth. A total of four series in the play-in and quarterfinal rounds of the playoffs needed three games to decide a winner, including Saskatchewan's 2-1 victory over Fraser Valley in Saskatoon last weekend.
"One of the really good things when you get to a three-game series is you get to see from your team if they're able to bring their best when it counts the most and who's going to rise to the occasion, and who's going to be able to perform and get the job done when their backs are against the wall," Thomaidis says.
Saskatchewan has never won back-to-back women's basketball titles, and there hasn't been a repeat champ in Canada West since 2010. In fact, until now, there hadn't even been consecutive Final Four hosts this decade.
Suffice to say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
"It's just the parity and the quality of teams across Canada West," Thomaidis says. "A lot of it comes down to timing, and who you lose due to graduation or injury and who they have returning the next year ... It just makes it very tough (to win the title) and a lot of things have to go your way."
Semifinal 1: Saskatchewan vs. Alberta – 6:15 p.m. CT – Friday, March 3
Perennial powerhouses square off in a rematch of last year's Canada West semifinal in Saskatoon, which the Huskies won 78-68 en route to winning gold and eventually the national championship.
This could be a defensive battle, given Alberta surrendered the second fewest points in Canada West this season (56.8 ppg), with the Huskies right behind them in third (59.3). The Pandas also held UBC to just 110 total points in a 2-0 quarterfinal victory last week. When Saskatchewan hosted the Pandas last month, the visitors took the first game 72-50 before the Huskies responded with a 72-62 victory the following night. Including their 2-1 quarterfinal victory over UFV, the Huskies are 9-4 at the PAC in 2016-17.
Keep an eye on Pandas senior Maddie Rogers (15.5 ppg, 3.8 apg) and Saskatchewan second-year Sabine Dukate (16.3 ppg, 3.6 apg), two guards that were named Canada West First Team All-Stars.
Semifinal 2: Regina vs. Winnipeg – 8:15 p.m. CT – Friday, March 3
Not only is this a battle of the most potent offences in Canada West, but a meeting of two excellent defensive squads; Regina ranks first in both points for (75.1) and allowed (52.8), while the Wesmen are second in scoring (74.1) and fourth in points against (60.7).
Regina had two dominant victories in its quarterfinal sweep of Trinity Western, while the Wesmen were pushed to Game 3 by Victoria, before blowing out the Vikes 92-65 in the deciding contest.
The Cougars and Wesmen squared off just four weeks ago, splitting a pair of games in Winnipeg, though the aggregate score favoured Regina, 141-129.
Winnipeg guard Antoinette Miller received both the 2017 Canada West Outstanding Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards, while her Cougars counterpart Katie Polischuk was selected as a Canada West First Team All-Star.