LANGLEY — The shadows always seemed like the kind of place that Sarah Buckingham was most comfortable to call her ‘home sweet home.’
Yet when you put up the kinds of numbers that the Trinity Western Spartans’ fourth-year guard has through the first half of the Canada West basketball season, it becomes statistically impossible to dodge the spotlight.
On Friday (6 p.m.), as the Spartans (7-3) return from their winter hiatus by hosting the first of a pair of weekend games (also 5 p.m. Saturday) against the Winnipeg Wesmen (4-8) at the Langley Events Centre, it will officially be time to dispense with any notion that Buckingham, a 2014 graduate of Surrey’s Lord Tweedsmuir Secondary via UNBC transfer, isn’t one of the top guards in the conference.
As understated and humble as they come, Buckingham has nonetheless made a case for herself as perhaps the most improved player in all of U Sports women’s basketball this season.
Not only has she given her scoring average of 9.1 points-per-game from a season ago a push all the way to eighth in the conference this season at 17.5 ppg, she enters play Friday as the Canada West’s shooting percentage leader from both the three-point arc (57.8 per cent, 26-of-45) and the charity stripe (92.6 per cent, 25-of-27).
You also need to consider that she logs a dutiful 35.2 minutes per game. And, as a versatile 5-foot-8 blank Scrabble chip, contributes bonuses of 6.2 rebounds and 3.3. assists per game.
Add all of that up. and you have a player, who on a team perched on the edge of national prominence, defines so many of the game’s efficiency metrics.
“She has this complete offensive kit,” begins Trinity Western head coach Cheryl Jean-Paul. “She hits the three at very high efficiency which means she takes the right shot at the right time. And she gets to the free throw line. And then she has the mid-range game and the ability to get to the rim.”
After spending 2014-15 at Prince George’s UNBC, where she had an effective rookie season with the Timberwolves, Buckingham elected to transfer to be closer to home at Trinity Western, where she sat out the 2015-16 season due to eligibility rules.
After averaging 3.2 ppg in 2016-17, then 9.1 ppg last season, she has finally come into her own this season.
Yet if it almost sounds too good to be true for a player who was roundly ignored by 99 per cent of U Sports schools coming out of Tweedsmuir, there has always been one catch.
“She is one of the best leaders our program has had in the last several years because of how she puts others ahead of herself,” begins Jean-Paul. “But she is the kind of player that needs to be reminded how good she is. She always considers herself the third or fourth option, and the challenge with her was to get her to see herself as one of the top offensive threats on the team. I’ve had to try to convince her of that.”
Four games before the winter break, push came to shove, in a manner of speaking.
Team scoring leader and dynamic forward Tessa Ratzlaff, a fifth-year senior, was forced out of the line-up through the holiday break with an injury that has just now cleared enough to mark her return on Friday.
Over that four-game span, the Spartans went 1-3, beating the Vikes, but also losing by a point at UNBC and by six in Victoria.
With Ratzlaff out, however, Buckingham stepped her game up to a new level, averaging 21.5 ppg (with 5.3 rpg and 4.3 apg) while shooting 48 per cent from the field and a stunning 63 per cent from distance over that four-game span.
When asked about where her level of reluctance sits these days, Buckingham replies: “Cheryl has definitely had her job cut out for her in building my confidence.”
SEIZING A LEADING ROLE
For so many years, TWU women’s basketball was a program on the outside looking in when it came time to talking about the post-season.
“But I came for my red-shirt year (2015-16) right at the beginning of the upward climb,” remembers Buckingham, who that season practiced with a team but then watched from the sidelines as the Spartans finally broke through to make the Canada West playoffs.
“I was there to witness the first surge, so I watched the group grow and saw how they could play,” she continues. “Then the next year (2016-17) I was able to play with players like Natalie (Carkner), Luca (Schmidt) and Kayla (Gordon). But I was stepping into a team that was already doing well together, so figuring out my role has been a harder process.”
Ever resourceful, however, Jean-Paul seized upon an opportunity at the very start of the current season to continue the process of stripping the reluctance away from Buckingham’s game.
Trinity Western opened its non-conference season Sept. 27-29 with a three-game Ontario road swing in which the Spartans played Western, and then Windsor twice.
The OUA teams may have come out victorious in all three games, but Jean-Paul called it a significant moment in the transition of Buckingham from third-wheel status to full triumvirate membership with Ratzlaff and Brown.
“The best thing to happen to (Buckingham) in the preseason was Jessie missing that trip due to her nursing schedule,” Jean-Paul says, after star guard Jessie Brown remained at home as part of her demanding academic course requirements.
“That really forced Sarah to come to grips with the fact that the team needed her to be assertive,” the coach added. “If Jessie had been there, I think Sarah would still be at around nine points-a-game,and that she would be letting Jessie and Tessa take it all on. She would be just filling in the gaps. Instead, she got a taste of what Jessie goes through. And I think she gained a new perspective. For the first time, she had to score for us and it was a new experience.”
HUMILITY RESIDES IN THE SHADOWS
In the final five full games in which Ratzlaff played for the Spartans before suffering her injury, the team went 5-0 and she was percentage points shy of a 20-10 double-double in the front court.
Yet for Ratzlaff, Brown and Buckingham to represent a true power trio down the stretch drive, Jean-Paul says its essential that the team doesn’t figuratively exhale in relief now that Ratzlaff is ready to return, and regress from the mindset they showed during her absence.
“Tessa is such a big piece of what we do,” acknowledges Jean-Paul. “It’s not only replacing what she does on the floor, but the fact that she is a presence that people have to defend. We get Tessa back now and she is healthy, but we don’t want to go back to deferring.”
Buckingham is clear that she never wants to see anyone have to take leave from the line-up due to injury or adversity, but adds that it provided yet another eye-opening experience for herself.
“It made me see even more than I can play in this league and that I have a good role to play,” Buckingham says. “I am so excited to get back to the pick-and-roll game with Tessa. No one is taking her return lightly, and all of this makes us stronger. We won’t shy away from our roles.”
For Sarah Buckingham, who never sought the spotlight, that role is not static. It just seems to keep getting bigger and bigger.
Yet ask the basketball purist what her most special quality is, and they’ll tell you that it’s all about the place from which she plays, a place she keeps well-hidden in the shadows.
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