Martlet cagers rally past Stingers, advance to league title game

Alex Kiss-Rusk scored a massive 31 points and Mariam Sylla recorded a "double-double" as the No.1-ranked McGill women's basketball team rallied from a 10-point deficit to defeat Concordia 85-60 in a sudden-death semifinal, Thursday, before 587 at Love Competition Hall yesterday.
Alex Kiss-Rusk in action yesterday en route to scoring 31 points. / Photo: Derek Drummond
Alex Kiss-Rusk in action yesterday en route to scoring 31 points. / Photo: Derek Drummond

Basketball Redmen play semifinals tonight at home

By Kirsten Whelan

Alex Kiss-Rusk scored a massive 31 points and Mariam Sylla recorded a “double-double” as No.1-ranked McGill rallied from a 10-point deficit to defeat Concordia 85-60 in a sudden-death semifinal, Thursday, before 587 at Love Competition Hall, the largest crowd ever to witness a women’s hoops game in McGill history. It was the opening salvo of the RSEQ Final Four women’s basketball championship tournament, presented by Milk 2 Go Sport.

The result was also the 14th consecutive victory for McGill, which went 15-1 in regular-season play and emerged victorious in all five meetings with Concordia this year. The Martlets – who have now won nine consecutive RSEQ playoff games since losing to Laval in the 2011 semifinal – advance to Saturday’s tourney final, in a bid for their fifth consecutive Quebec title. Tip-off is 3 p.m. at Love Competition Hall. They will confront Laval, which erased an 11-point deficit to defeat UQAM 67-48 in Thursday’s other semifinal, en route to their first appearance in the final since 2011.

The conference champion merits a guaranteed berth at the CIS Final Eight national championship in Fredericton, March 17-20.

Kiss-Rusk, a 22-year-old psychology junior from Beaconsfield, Que., was named player of the game for McGill. She achieved career highs in points and blocked shots (8). The 6-foot-4 centre shot 14-for-22 from the floor, 3-for-3 from the free throw line, pulled down seven rebounds and was credited with three assists.

“I was really hyped up about the game and everything was falling for me – I had a few shots that just fell,” said Kiss-Rusk, the daughter of two McGill basketball grads and the tallest player in Martlets history. “Everybody was getting me the ball, so it was working well. It’s coming down to it right now – they’re all must-win games, so I’m trying to do everything that I can to get us to the next step.

“We were looking inside a lot, so that was really big and we were running a lot of plays that allowed me close-up too, which was huge. This game, Concordia didn’t double (team) much in close. I think I have an advantage against any of their ‘bigs’ and if they’re not doubling, it becomes a pretty good situation for us.”

Sylla, a pharmacology senior originally from Guinea, tallied 22 points and nabbed a dozen rebounds, to go along with one steal, an assist and a pair of blocked shots. She shot 7-for-16 from the floor and was impeccable from the foul-line, sinking all eight of her chances.

The Martlets went a spectacular 18-for-20 from the stripe, capitalizing on 90 per cent of their opportunities. During the regular season, they ranked second in the nation in that department, with a 76.2 per cent success rate.

“If we’re going to force people to foul us, then we better make some free-throws,” said McGill bench boss Ryan Thorne, the conference coach of the year, who improved to 201-172 in 374 games overall “We spend a bit of time on that now. That’s something that was lacking early on in the season but I think we’ve addressed it and we’ll continue to work on it throughout.”

The Stingers took control right from the start and grabbed a 10-point lead late in the first quarter before a Sylla lay-up narrowed the gap to 20-12, but the Martlets regrouped and took a 35-34 edge at the intermission. The home side returned from halftime strong and carried a healthy 61-49 lead into the final frame, which they won 24-11.

“Since Feb. 6, we haven’t had the whole team together,” noted Thorne, whose troops have been decimated with injuries to a number of starters. “For us to get together now, at a really important time, there’s got to be some nerves. Everyone wants to play their best and sometimes you try to do it all by yourself, so there was a little bit of that (involved).

“We took a time-out and started to talk more about us playing as a unit. I think (afterwards) we did a better job of that. We were giving them a lot of easy baskets defensively. As bad as we were at the beginning, in the first half we shot (over) 46 per cent from the field, which is pretty good. But they shot 44.1 per cent, which is something we usually don’t allow, so I was disappointed in that.”

Co-captain Dianna Ros, a graduate student from Montreal who had missed the previous four games due to injury, returned in force for the Martlets and scored 11 points along with three assists. The fifth-year senior shot 4-for-6 from the field and 3-for-4 from the line.

“She was outstanding,” said Thorne of his 5-foot-7 point guard. “Early on she was timid and there were some opportunities she didn’t take. But she has the ability to bring people together and… find our bigs. She helped Alex get a couple easy buckets, helped Mariam get a couple of easy buckets and took a couple for herself. So that’s just what fifth-year leadership gives you and we’re definitely happy to have that.”

Richelle Gregoire of Ste. Therese, Que., led the Stingers with 20 points and five rebounds, followed by Marilyse Roy-Viau of Mirabel, Que., who scored 15 and pulled down seven rebounds.

“The game plan was to take them out of what they wanted to do,” explained Concordia head coach Tenicha Gittens of her team’s early success. “We did a good job at the beginning. It rattled them, and we wanted to make them uncomfortable.

“We wanted to stay true to the game plan and in the second half we got away from that,” she continued. “We allowed Alex Kiss-Rusk to get too comfortable on the block and she’s a great player. She’s really, really, really good. She knows exactly when she wants the ball and she knows exactly what to do when she catches it, so if you make her comfortable, if you’re not physical with her and you allow her to just go from block to block, she’ll drop 31 points on you easily, no contest.”

Gittens, who is in her first year as head coach with the Stingers, got her start as an assistant at McGill.

“Ryan Thorne is my mentor,” she acknowledged. “He’s the one who gave me an opportunity to coach university basketball. It’s great any time you go against your mentor – almost like going against your dad – so it’s always going to be exciting. Even just watching the two of us on the sidelines, we want to get the best of each other. I think he taught me well.”

Though Concordia’s season is over, the young squad will return a full line-up next year as no losses are expected through graduation.

The Martlets shot 49.3 per cent from the field (33/67) and 16.7 per cent (1/6) from three-point range. The Stingers shot 30.1 (22/73) and 30.8 (4/13), respectively, They went 12-for-19 from the line.

McGill had a 42-25 lead in rebounds, a 12-1 margin in blocked shots and a 16-11 advantage in turnovers. Both teams recorded four steals.

In the other semifinal, four Laval players reached double figures, led by Genevieve Derome’s 15 points. UQAM’s Jessica Lubin, the league MVP, collected 19 and 11 rebounds in a losing cause.

Both McGill and Laval get a day off to prepare for Saturday’s matinee finale. The men’s side of the Final Four tourney gets underway later today. Top-seeded McGill hosts fourth-seeded Laval in one semifinal at 6 p.m., followed by the Concordia-UQAM semi at 8 p.m. Both contests will be streamed live, in French and English, on the McGill Sports Network.

MARTLET MURMURS: Conference rookie of the year Gladys Hakizimana left the game with an undisclosed injury, though Coach Thorne said her removal was largely precautionary… The 5-foot-7 guard played 15 minutes and collected two points, three rebounds, four assists and a steal, before leaving the game after the third quarter.

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