To Sophie Swant, the contrast over a span of a couple of hours Saturday night at the Alaska Airlines Center was incredible.
“The fourth quarter was almost eerie in a way because only our team is cheering and there are people getting up and leaving the arena,” said the Simon Fraser Clan forward. “It went from a thunderous gym in the warm-up, to being able to hear a pin drop besides our bench.”
That’s what happens when the road team goes into an enemy barn and snaps the home team’s 30-game Div. 2 streak in nothing less than the semifinals of the NCAA Div. 2 West Region Championship.
In the biggest upset win in the history of Clan’s NCAA tenure, Swant scored a career-high 18 points and No. 5-seeded SFU scored 12 of its final 14 points from the free throw line, stunning the nationally No. 2-ranked and No. 1-seeded Alaska Anchorage Seawolves 80-70 for a berth in Monday’s West Region championship game.
“I think the kids were all in a good head space,” said Clan head coach Bruce Langford from Anchorage on Saturday evening. “They talked about the fact that there was a poll where you could pick each game and how 100 per cent of the people picked Alaska.”
Without question, the Seawolves ticked off every box on the sheet in terms of their credentials.
*They went all the way to last season’s national final before losing to Lubbock Christian.
*They were the defending West Region champs.
*They carried not only a 30-game unbeaten streak against NCAA Div. 2 foes, but they also completed a 20-0 Great Northwest Athletic Conference season by beating the Clan on its Seniors Night just two weeks ago atop Burnaby Mountain.
Yet upon closer examination, the Clan haven’t exactly been the sisters of the poor against the Seawolves.
Over the past two seasons, SFU is 2-4 against Anchorage, but the two wins have both come at Alaska Airlines Center.
In 2015-16, SFU spoiled Anchorage’s Senior’s Night festivities with a 67-66 win at a time when UAA was ranked No. 1 in the nation and had a perfect record at home.
As well, SFU opened that 2015-16 season with a 76-74 loss at the West Gym to Anchorage, and this season, on its own Senior’s Night two weekends ago, took UAA right down to the wire before losing 77-72.
The other two Clan losses were last season’s 82-47 setback in the GNAC semifinals, and this season’s 75-59 loss in the GNAC opener for both teams Nov. 30 at SFU.
“They had some runs against us like they always do,” said Langford whose team trailed 35-27 at half, “and we didn’t quit. We showed some grit and we had an outstanding third quarter. I was a little nervous that maybe we got the lead a little too early, but many different players stepped up and played big games.”
Swant’s three-point bucket with 6:17 left in the third quarter marked a 12-2 run to begin the second half.
By the time Rachel Fradgley’s lay-in fell through with 3:50 left in the third quarter, the run had snowballed to 18-2 and the Clan, leading 45-37 never looked back, playing with the lead for the final 16-plus minutes.
“Coming in tonight we knew we had done it once and that we could do it again,” said Swant who also supplied four rebounds, four assists and two steals. “No one other than us thinks we can win, so let’s go out and do something crazy.”
Point guard Ellen Kett provided 10 points and six assists, forward Fradgley 10 points, 10 rebounds and six assists and off the bench, rookie point guard Tayler Drynan 11 points in 12 minutes on 4-of-4 shooting, including a trio of triples.
Autummn Williams led the Seawolves with 18 points, while Shelby Cloninger with 16 and Hannah Wandersee with 14 scored their points off the bench.
“I am just speechless the way everyone on our team came together,” said Swant after SFU, through the end of the GNAC regular season and through conference playoffs, were a .500 club (4-4) entering the West Region tournament.
Now, it’s two wins and counting, both without star senior forward Meg Wilson, sidelined with a hand injury.
On Monday (8 p.m.), the Clan hit the round of Sweet 16 in the West Region final against the same Cal Baptist Lancers team which beat them 84-77 in SFU’s first game of the season back on Nov. 4 in Anaheim.
Cal Baptist, the West’s No. 2 seed, is playing its second-to-final season at Div. 2 before transitioning to Div. 1 for 2018-19. The Lancers incoming class includes recently-named B.C. girls Triple A MVP Maryn Budiman of Surrey’s Lord Tweedsmuir Secondary.
If the Clan win, they’re off to the NCAA Elite 8 championships March 21-24 in Columbus, Ohio.
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