After a long regular season, it’s finally time to flip the calendar to March, and for Atlantic Canadian basketball fans that means one thing: the East Coast’s version of ‘March Madness’ tips off this weekend under the bright lights of Halifax’s Scotiabank Centre.
Last year’s AUS Women’s Basketball Championship was one for the ages, and much closer than the 79-61 final score indicates. The CAPERS and Axewomen were tied 59-59 with 3:43 remaining, before Cape Breton closed the game on a 20-2 run to secure their first conference title since 2011.
The Axewomen and CAPERS seem to be on a collision course to meet again in this year’s final, but anything can happen in a conference where all six playoff participants finished with a .500 or better record this season.
Without further ado, I present CUSN’s 2018 AUS Women’s Basketball Championship Preview.
#4 Saint Mary’s Huskies (11-9) vs. #5 Memorial Sea-Hawks (11-9)
This is a very interesting matchup between two teams that finished with identical regular season records, and split their season season with one win apiece. Memorial and Saint Mary’s didn’t meet until the final weekend of the regular season, where the teams split a pair of four-point games in St. John’s. The Huskies won the first game 57-53, thanks to a 19-point and six-steal effort from Second Team All-Star Kennisha-Shanice Luberisse. The next day, Memorial used a 30-point third quarter to take down the Huskies 77-62, propelled by 21 points from Second Team All-Star Sydney Stewart in her second game back from an ankle injury that kept her out of seven regular season games.
This quarter-final matchup should be a classic battle of Offence vs. Defence. The Sea-Hawks rank fourth in the conference in scoring (70.5 PPG), and first in three-point field goals attempted (22.6, 3FGA/GP). Stewart’s crafty inside game is surrounded by shooters like Brooklynn Wright, Rosie Stanoev, Haille Nickerson, and Lindsay Taylor, who finishes her AUS regular season career fifth all-time in three-pointers made with 152.
Saint Mary’s has struggled to find consistency on offence this year, but as usual, Coach Scott Munro has the Huskies defence playing top notch. They have held opponents to an AUS-best 59.1 points per game allowed, led by the tenacious on-ball defence of Luberisse, the two-time AUS Defensive Player of the Year. The Huskies also have an advantage inside in this matchup, with veteran forwards Shanieka Wood and Katrina Murrell combining to average 19 points and 16.4 rebounds per game.
Teams that live and die by the three-ball are known to struggle in the spacious Scotiabank Centre, but defence and rebounding has proven to be a winning formula every March. The Saint Mary’s Huskies are my pick to advance to meet the Acadia Axewomen in the semifinals.
#3 UPEI Panthers (11-9) vs. #6 UNB Varsity Reds (10-10)
It’s tough to use this season’s history to predict this matchup. The Panthers and Varsity Reds split a pair of home-and-home series this year, with UNB winning games by 16 and 22 points, and UPEI winning by 16 and 11. Both teams are middle-of-the-pack in most statistical categories, with the most noticeable exception being the excellent free-throwing shooting of the Panthers, who lead the conference in free throws made (18/G), attempted (23.9/G) and percentage (75.2%).
The Panthers are led by First Team All-Star Kiera Rigby, a dynamic slasher who is surrounded by a solid supporting cast. AUS Rookie of the Year and New Brunswick native Reese Baxendale really seems to enjoy playing against her home province, averaging 15.8 points in four games against the Varsity Reds. Depth could be a concern for UPEI, as they really only go six players deep, and foul-trouble or injuries could force coach Greg Gould into a tough situation.
After an injury-plagued regular season — six rotation players missed five or more games with injury — the Varsity Reds appear to be near full-strength for the playoffs with veterans Hannah Currie and Grace Wade back in the lineup. In a way, the injuries could be a blessing in disguise for the Varsity Reds, as it forced role players like Mikaela Dodig, Nicole Esson, Eva Tumwine, and Krystal Osburn to step up their games—and they delivered. Coach Jeff Speedy’s squad always plays tough team-defence, and I truly don’t think we’ve seen the best of UNB this season. If they are fully healthy, the Varsity Reds’ depth and experience could lead to a major upset.
I’ve gone back and forth on this prediction several times, but the Varsity Reds are my pick to advance to meet the Cape Breton CAPERS in the semis.
#1 Acadia Axewomen (11-9) vs. #4 Saint Mary’s Huskies (15-5)
A rematch of last year’s semifinal which Acadia won 77-71, ending Saint Mary’s quest for a fifth-consecutive AUS title, largely thanks to a 29-point, 12-rebound monster performance by AUS MVP Paloma Anderson. The Axewomen went on to lose a heart-breaker to the CAPERS in the championship game, and are hungry for revenge this season.
Acadia handled the Huskies with relative ease in a pair of February meetings, winning by 40 in Wolfville, and 16 in Halifax. Last year, Axewomen guard Haley McDonald played just two minutes and was held scoreless in the semifinal against SMU. This year she’s a Second Team All-Star and one of the biggest scoring threats for the Axewomen, averaging 17.6 points per game.
While the Huskies still have some championship experience, only Luberisse, Murrell, and Wood remain from their 2016 Championship roster. The Huskies defence is their strength, but they will struggle to keep up with the offensive fire power of the Axewomen, as Saint Mary’s only scored more than 76 points in a game once this season, while Acadia averages more than 86.
Offence beats defence this time, as I’ve got Acadia advancing to their second-consecutive AUS Championship Game.
#2 Cape Breton CAPERS (13-7) vs. #6 UNB Varsity Reds (10-10)
Once again, this would be a rematch of last year’s semifinal. In 2017 the CAPERS held the Varsity Reds to just 12 points in the fourth quarter to pull out a 56-52 ‘upset’ win over the #2 seed.
This year the CAPERS have the #2 seed, while the Varsity Reds are #6, but I expect this match-up will be a lot closer than the team’s seeds and records would indicate. UNB has had Cape Breton’s number this year, winning four-of-five matchups, including a pre-season win at a tournament hosted by Ryerson. Over the first four matchups, the Varsity Reds outscored the CAPERS by an average of 81.3-67. But the final meeting on January 13th was a completely different story. The CAPERS defeated the Varsity Reds 87-63, led by a 21-point, 17-rebound double-double by star forward Alison Keough. That win seemed to flip a switch on the CAPERS season, as they won eight-of-ten games to finish off the regular season to secure a quarter-final bye.
Defending the CAPERS ‘twin towers’ of Keough and Hannah Brown will be tough task for an undersized Varsity Reds frontcourt that graduated last year’s DPOY Katelyn Mangold. A healthy Hannah Currie will help, but this CAPERS team has championship experience, and Keough is hungry to finish off her legendary career with another title.
I’ve got the CAPERS moving on to play the Axewomen, in a rematch of last year’s final.
AUS Finals Prediction
#1 Acadia Axewomen (11-9) vs. #2 Cape Breton CAPERS (13-7)
A rematch of last year’s memorable final, which as mentioned above, was much closer than the 79-61 final score indicates. With 3:43 remaining in the fourth quarter, game was tied at 59. That was until Cape Breton’s Hannah Brown took over, scoring nine points down the stretch before the CAPERS iced the game at the free-throw line. That loss has motivated the experienced Axewomen, as they have demolished the AUS competition all season, on their way to a school-record 18 wins.
But if there’s one team that has what it takes to upset the Axewomen, it’s the CAPERS. These two teams met twice in February and the CAPERS proved that they matched up with the first-place Axewomen better than anyone else in the AUS. On February 10, the CAPERS were able to take down the Axewomen on their home-court 84-83, with Keough and Brown combining for 34 points and 22 rebounds. Two weeks later, the Axewomen returned the favour, defeating the CAPERS at home 97-93, in what was the highest scoring game of the AUS regular season.
The CAPERS’ frontcourt is their strength and the Axewomen will rely on fifth-year forward Allie Berry to try and keep Keough and Brown off the offensive glass. The Axewomen have been without starting power forward Kelsey Rice since November due to a concussion, which has weakened the team’s rebounding and depth, but it would be a huge boost to their frontcourt if she is able to return for the playoffs.
The Axewomen backcourt of Paloma Anderson and Haley McDonald is one of the best in the country, combining to average 36.5 points and 9.0 assists per game. The CAPERS will need their young backcourt comprised of freshman MacKenzee Ryan and sophomore Toni Bianchini to step up and produce on the big stage, if they have any hope of competing with the Axewomen.
This matchup would also be the final AUS game for two of the greatest players in recent history; Paloma Anderson and Alison Keough both will finish their careers as MVP’s, school record holders, and they have been named All-Stars multiple times. But while Keough already won one title, Anderson and fellow fifth-years Allie Berry, Chanel Smith, and Katie Ross, are prepared to do anything to raise that trophy for the very first time.
I expect it will be another closely-contested, highly-entertaining game but Acadia simply has too much offensive firepower to be held to 61 points like they were in last year’s final. I believe that the Acadia Axewomen‘s historic season will continue. They are my pick to represent the AUS at Nationals for the first time since 2012.