The most important road trip the UBC Thunderbirds have taken this season was to Cuba over the winter break. (Photo courtesy UBC women's basketball)
Feature University Women's Basketball

Havana hoops holiday helps harvest ‘eureka’ moments, Huband’s UBC Thunderbirds grow together in time to make late-season surge

VANCOUVER — Listen to Deb Huband talk about the ever-evolving state of the youngest team she has ever coached in her 23 seasons at the helm of the UBC Thunderbirds women’s basketball program, and one phrase — ‘eureka moments’ — stands out above all the others.

They are the kinds of moments that Huband would have liked to have seen with more frequency earlier in the campaign, yet as the Canada West’s regular season calendar hits mid-January, that time when the overall level of angst and expectation skyrockets everywhere across the conference, she is finally starting to see the lights being switched to ‘ON’.

Heading into a must-win home weekend set against Edmonton’s MacEwan Griffins (4-10), one which begins with a special 1 p.m. matinee Friday at War Gym, the Thunderbirds (6-8) hold down the conference’s 12th-and-final playoff spot with six more regular-season games remaining and are coming off their most impressive weekend of the season, a sweep of the host Lethbridge Pronghorns (10-6).

That sweep, coming off an extended winter break into which the team shouldered the weight of a five-game losing streak, snapped one of the most frustrating chapters in Huband’s near quarter-century watch of a program which has won three national titles under her hand.

The silver lining?

A team trip in late-December and early January to Cuba in which its roster, this season devoid of even a single fourth- or fifth-year player, unplugged in the truest sense of the word and got a chance to re-connect with each other on an entirely different level.

“We had already gotten a lot done in December in terms of teaching,” begins Huband, whose team had started the season 3-1, but has gone on to lose seven of their next eight games before the holiday break, one which began a day after the team’s 72-56 home loss to Regina on Dec. 2.

“And Cuba was really good for us,” she continued. “No internet. No cellphones. We were just immersed in ourselves and it was a great experience, one we were all a lot better for having experienced together.”

There was, of course, basketball, and the chance to train and compete against area teams in Havana.

Yet Huband traces the group’s ability to re-trench and rally last weekend in Lethbridge back to the moments her players shared together on the trip.

“It was a little intimidating to think about spending all that time without our phones,” the coach chuckled, “but we had only ourselves and we got to know each other on a deeper level. I think it reinforced the work we had put in back home to start December, and since we have come back home, I think it has helped show our team in a different light.”

Forward Keylyn Filewich is emerging as a front court force as a second-year player with the youthful UBC Thunderbirds. (Richard Lam/UBC athletics)

Last weekend’s sweep of a then 10-4 basketball team on its home court was impressive, especially for a team that hadn’t played a meaningful game in six weeks, one week longer than the rest of the conference.

Most impressively, ‘Birds second-year forward Keylyn Filewich had a breakout series, the Winnipeg native averaging 24 points and 11 rebounds per game against Lethbridge en route to conference Player of the Week honours.

“She was strong and she’s learned to handle double teams a lot better said Huband, “but overall, people are also playing better around her.

“The ball is being moved and shared, and our defence, which in the first half (of the season) was weak, now has a tenacity to it, and an understanding that has allowed us to pressure our opponents.”

On Friday, for the first time since that Dec. 2 loss to Regina, UBC returns to War Memorial Gymnasium to face a Griffins teams which itself is fighting for its playoff life.

UBC will play the Griffins at 1 p.m. Friday and 5 p.m. Saturday, then play twice in Kelowna the following week against a UBC Okanagan Heat team which headed into this weekend with a winless, 0-14 record.

The regular season then ends Feb. 1-2 with a home-and-home set against arch-rival Victoria (10-4), with the series beginning in the provincial capital.

The top 12 teams in Canada West qualify for playoffs, and once that top 12 is established, the teams are seeded by the strength of their RPI number. If the playoffs were to start this weekend, 12th-place UBC would be seeded as the No. 8 team.

UBC’s third-year guard Maddison Penn sits second in conference scoring at 19 ppg, while Filewich checks in at 16.4 ppg and third-year guard Jessica Hanson at 11.5 ppg.

“Every girl is getting the opportunity to show what they can do every week, in practice and in games,” said Huband, “and with such a young group, everyone has their ‘eureka’ moments. 

“We have made additions to the play-book, we’ve clarified the things that are most important to our success and the light bulb has come on.”

Yet that’s not to say that working through any part of the first half of the season was easy, even for a veteran coach like Huband, who has seen virtually everything.

“It was extremely challenging,” she admits. “I’ve never had a team without any fourth- or fifth-year athletes, and then we had some third-year players coming back from injuries. There were just too many gaps and holes, but that has improved a lot over the last four-to-five weeks and it’s very exciting to see what we’ve done over a very short time.”

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