By Earl Zukerman
Game MVP Mariam Sylla registered a “double-double” and knocked down the winning basket in the dying seconds as McGill rallied for a thrilling 53-51 victory over the UQAM Citadins before a crowd of 514 at the Mitchell gym on Saturday afternoon, to capture the RSEQ women’s basketball championship for the fourth consecutive year, the second straight against UQAM.
The Martlets advance to the CIS Final Eight for the ninth time in school history and will join host Laval at national championship in Quebec City, March 12-15.
In a thriller that featured 15 lead changes, Sylla showed her mettle at crunch time. The 6-foot-1 forward from Conakry, Guinea, drained the winning basket on a lay-up with 26 seconds remaining to make it 52-51, then added a free-throw with two seconds left to finish with a game and season-high 25 points to go along with 14 rebounds.
“It was pressure time but I knew that I could dominate inside,” admitted Sylla, named conference player of the year in each of the last two seasons. “That’s a moment that every player lives for and I was very excited to help my team at that moment.”
She played a game-high 38 minutes, shot a sizzling 8-for-16 from the floor and dropped an impressive nine of 11 shots from the foul-line. It was her 12th double-double in 28 games overall, her fourth in the last five outings, and was also credited with a pair of steals in the contest.
McGill, which led 18-9 early in the second quarter, found themselves on the wrong side of a 46-41 score with 6:22 remaining in the contest before Sylla took over and poured in eight of her team’s final 12 points down the stretch. She tied the game at 47-47 with 4:53 remaining and put McGill ahead 50-49 on a three-point play with 2:58 left.
But UQAM regained the lead at 51-50 when Jessica Lubin hit a jumper with 36 seconds remaining. Sylla, however, answered back.
“Actually the play was to for me to look inside because they were having trouble defending me there throughout the game,” said the 22-year-old pharmacology junior who was honoured last fall by Governor-General David Johnston for being among the CIS Top Eight Academic All-Canadians.
“If they double-teamed me, I was supposed to kick it outside to a shooter like Caro (Cloutier) or Dianna (Ros) but they didn’t defend me the way they did earlier, so I was wide open and just went for a lay-up,” said Sylla.
McGill led 12-9 after the first quarter and 27-24 at halftime but the Citadins outscored the Martlets 14-10 in the third stanza before McGill rebounds with a 16-13 margin in the final quarter.
“We went to our player of the year (when the game was on the line),” said McGill head coach Ryan Thorne. “The month of March is about players, it’s not about coaching. They know what to do and we went to a play that we usually run.
Alex Kiss-Rusk, a 6-foot-4 starting forward for McGill, left the game after only eight minutes with an apparent ankle sprain and did not return, which forced McGill head coach Ryan Thorne to change his game plan somewhat and he kept Sylla on the floor for all but a two-minute respite.
“With Alex going down, it changed the complexion of the game, changed where our strength probably was in the front court and the ability to keep just banging it inside,” said McGill head coach Ryan Thorne. “Their guards were amazing for UQAM, they put a lot off pressure on us which made it tough to make some entry passes but (our) girls grinded it out, believed in each other… They said that it was never over, even though we were down by about five or six late in the game and they fought to come back… We made some mistakes and I wasn’t happy with our game overall but wasvery proud that we kept fighting and never gave up.”
McGill’s bench outscored UQAM’s subs 13-7 but other than that, there wasn’t much to choose from between the two Montreal-based rivals, with McGill holding a 43-41 edge in rebounds, a 10-9 margin in steals and a 3-1 advantage in blocked shots. The Martlets shot 33.3 per cent from the field (19/57), made only one of 15 attempts from three-point range and went 14-for-21 from the line), compared to UQAM, which shot 34.4 (21/61), made one of 10 treys and sunk eight of 15 free-throws.
Gabriela Hebert added nine points and six rebounds for the Martlets, who also had a nine-point outing from Marika Guerin off the bench. Point-guard Dianna Ros had a solid all-round game, cointributing four points, a pair of rebounds, a game-high seven assists and three steals.
Lorna Desrameaux-Simon led the Citadins with 19 points and six rebounds to merit player-of-the-game honours for her side.Teammates Sarah Cabana and Queteline Celestin added nine and eight points, respectively. The aforementioned Lubin had six points and half a dozen rebounds.
Only 33 personal fouls were called in a contest that could have easily had double that amount.
“It was very physical and that’s one of the things that concerns me about the RSEQ conference,” said Thorne. “We allow too much physicality and I don’t think it sets us up very well for when we play at Nationals, where all of a sudden, everything is a touch foul. (The referees) called it one way early, then they stopped calling that type of game. Our opponents understood that and that’s why they left their player in with three early fouls… That part was a little disappointing but I was very happy that we pulled it out at the end.”
MARTLET MURMURS: McGill is bidding to become the first Quebec-based team to win the CIS banner since Bishop’s went back-to-back in 1983 and 1984… The Martlets are 7-13 lifetime in their previous eight appearances at the CIS tournament… Their only medal was a bronze in 1996, when the tourney was also held in Quebec City.
McGill’s women’s hockey team also won the provincial title and is now preparing for a national championship run. Read about it here.