Martlets basketball: National champs!
McGill’s Alex Kiss-Rusk named player of the game and championship MVP
By Earl Zukerman
Somewhere James Naismith is smiling.
Alex Kiss-Rusk of Beaconsfield, Que., registered a reverse “double-double” as the McGill women’s basketball team captured the Bronze Baby Trophy for their first-ever national championship with a 66-55 victory over Laval, Sunday. In the first-ever meeting of two Quebec teams in the final, the Martlets outscored the Laval 24-14 in the fourth quarter to cement their lead and claim victory in the ArcelorMittal Dofasco U SPORTS Final 8 tournament at the CARSA Performance Gym.
After splitting the four-game season series with their RSEQ conference rivals, the Martlets emerged victorious when it mattered most and the Bronze Baby Trophy – donated in 1922 by the then-named McGill Students’ Council – will finally return to its roots in downtown Montreal. The Martlets’ win marks the first national basketball title – men or women’s – in school history and is the first time a Quebec school has won the championship since Bishop’s went back-to-back in 1983 and 1984.
“We’ve got a big heavy trophy coming home with us,” announced McGill head coach Ryan Thorne, whose troops posted a 9-7 record in league play but finished the season with a seven-game win streak, including five in the playoffs.. “We’ve always had the winning mindset, we just haven’t had the opportunities as much nationally. We’ve done a good job overall in terms of Quebec. We knew how to win there but I think we had to learn how to prepare and win nationally, so that’s where we got to right now.”
“Our slogan this year was ‘Together We Rise’ and now we have risen to the top,” added Thorne, who also captained Bishop’s to a national title in 1998, coincidentally the last men’s title for a Quebec institution.
“It feels amazing,” said Kiss-Rusk, a 6-foot-4 centre who posted game-highs with 15 points and 20 rebounds (a season-best) in 38 minutes of court-time. It was her 14th double-double of the season and the first of a reverse nature (more rebounds than points). “It’s been a long road to get here for sure but we did it, so it feels great. This one is for the girls who came before us, too.
“Nobody expected it from us this year and a lot of people underestimated us,” she told a national TV audience on Sportsnet. “I had some great shooters on the outside so we were able to play some really good inside-out basketball and it ended up falling for me today pretty good.”
The 24-year-old psychology senior was named both, player of the game and championship MVP for McGill for a dominating performance that included a tourney-leading 51 points and 44 rebounds. Over the three games, she played 113 of 120 possible minutes, shot 40 per cent from the floor (18-for-45) and 75 per cent from the line (15-for-20). She added 14 assists, six blocked shots and one steal.
“She was the MVP of our team and she brought that with her to this situation so this was definitely a great opportunity for her,” said Thorne, who has guided the Martlets to a 230-183 record in 14 seasons overall, including a 23-13 mark in post-season play.
Kiss-Rusk was one of five players on the current roster who was on the team that reached the final at the 2015 tournament but had to settle for a silver medal after losing to Windsor.
“One of the things that we talked about was the fact that this was an experience that the veterans had a couple years ago,” explained Thorne. “We told them to think of all the little things they didn’t do and all the regrets they had in that final and to make sure they wouldn’t have any when they finished this one, and they all came through. All those girls that are in their third or fourth year – Kiss-Rusk, Jennifer Silver, Marika Guerin, Marie-Love Michel – they had all been through that loss to Windsor, so it gives them a little bit of vindication there.”
Kiss-Rusk and her 20 rebounds were a big part of the Martlets out-rebounding Laval by an alarming 52-32 margin in the contest.
“Huge factor,” said Laval head coach Guillaume Giroux when asked how important the rebounding margin was in the game. “We managed to deal with that a bit better when we played them in the season but they killed us on the glass, on both (ends of the court).”
The Martlets’ rebounding advantage was key both offensively and defensively, their 13 offensive rebounds in the game led to 18 second-chance points compared to just the four that the Rouge et Or managed.
“Our size is greater than theirs,” explained Thorne. “If they want to look for a bunch of three-point shooting, they have to get smaller (i.e less personnel under the boards), so I knew that if we did a good job on the glass we could be successful.”
Laval was ahead 16-14 after the first quarter but McGill took a 28-24 lead into the intermission. The Rouge et Or narrowed the gap to 42-41 heading into the final frame, where the Martlets exploded with a 24-point quarter. Laval’s 55 points in the game was 14 less than in any other game they played in the tournament, something that Giroux attributed to a tough Martlet defence.
“We were a little cold but you have to give them credit because our separation was not huge. They got on us a bit more and we had to do our layups through contact and we weren’t able to make those,” said Giroux, in his second year at Laval after five seasons as a McGill assistant coach to Thorne. “We missed a couple of easy ones but they also forced us to rush some shots and that made it difficult.”
While Kiss-Rusk was the focal point of the Martlets’ offence, the depth on McGill also shone, with veterans Marika Guerin, Frederique Potvin and Jennifer Silver all scoring in double digits.
Guerin, a 5-foot-4 point guard from Sorel, Que., scored 14 points thanks to a 3-for-8 success rate from beyond the three-point arc and 5-for-6 shooting from the charity stripe. The graduating kinesiology junior also grabbed three rebounds and had a pair of assists. Potvin of Ste. Julie, Que., scored 12 points, gathered five rebounds and had two assists. She shot 4-for-9 from the field, including 1-for-4 from downtown, and went 3-for-4 from the line.
Silver, a 5-foot-11 forward from Montreal, earned 10 points and corralled seven rebounds, including three off the offensive glass. She shot 5-for-7 from the field and added an assist.
“She’s on a 7 p.m. (Pacific) flight tonight,” said Thorne of the fourth-year medical student, whose demanding course load impacted her travel schedule throughout the season and forced her to leave a couple of days late for the nationals. “She needed to be back at school for her class (Monday), she had to be back in at 9 a.m., so that was the best we could do. We needed her so bad and hopefully we’ll find some time to celebrate with her when we get back home. It’s great for her to come away with this championship knowing that her contribution was key.”
Potvin, a 5-foot-10 guard, joined Kiss-Rusk on the all-tournament team after amassing 48 points in three games.
“Prior to the tournament we thought that she was going to be vital and there were going to be some opportunities for her to get some shots, and she played a really good tournament,” praised Thorne. “She took advantage of her opportunities, attacked when she had opportunities, shot the ball when she had opportunities and that definitely helped us.”
“There were times when it showed that we were nervous, and there were some times where the confidence and the experience of having been here before shone through and that’s what we got some great opportunities from,” added Thorne. “The biggest thing was just not to panic and we didn’t do that. We knew that offensively if we went through Alex we’d get some great opportunities and defensively we just had to lock down and trust in our rotations.”
“That’s what this team is built on, we’ve never focused in on one player. We have some strengths but overall we were just unselfish,” said Thorne. “We like each other, work with each other and know that we can’t do it unless we work together.”
Jane Gagné was named the player of the game for the Rouge et Or, scoring a team-high 13 points in her 35 minutes on the court. Justine Guay-Bilodeau added 10 points for Laval in the final game of her university career.
McGill shot 36.8 per cent from the field (21/57), including 40 per cent from the three-point range (6/15), and went 81.9 per cent from the free-throw line (18/22). The Rouge et Or shot 30.3 per cent from the field (20/66), including 27.6 per cent from beyond the arc (8/29), and were 7-for-10 from the stripe.