SFU's Ozi Nwabuko (left) grabbed all eight of her rebounds over a stellar-second half as the Clan upped their defensive intensity in a road win over Sabrina Ungaro and the Alaska Nanaooks in Fairbanks. (Photo by Paul McCarthy property of UAF Athletics 2018. All Rights Reserved)
Feature University Women's Basketball

“We’re headed to the North Pole!” It wasn’t pretty, but Clan women’s basketball gets gutsy win at frigid Alaska-Fairbanks

There is no such thing as an ugly win, even if the Simon Fraser women’s basketball team spent 37 of 40 minutes trying to convince Clan fans otherwise via live stream on Saturday from frigid Fairbanks, Alaska.

Yet even on an afternoon in which it shot an ice-cold 4-for-29 from beyond the three-point arc, SFU was able to gather itself over the final three minutes of play to turn a gruesome-looking nail-biter into a blue-collar 59-46 Great Northwest Athletic Conference win over the host Alaska Nanooks in a game which evens the Clan’s record at 2-2 heading into Thursday’s home return to the West Gym against Western Oregon.

“We’re going to the North Pole,” a jubilant Clan head coach Bruce Langford said after his team hit 10 of its last 11 shots from the free throw line to turn a 46-45 cage match into a comfortable win over the Nanooks (0-4).

Langford, of course was referring to nearby North Pole, Alaska, an annual tourist destination for the team.

“I need to get the car warmed up first,” added Langford. “Some of the girls have never been there before. But right now it’s so cold, it feels like…”

The head coach’s cellular connection wasn’t the best, understandable considering the minus-33 temperature.

SFU’s Sophie Swant, pictured in last season’s home game against Alaksa Fairbanks, scored a game-high 18 points to lead her team to victory on the road Saturday. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of VarsityLetters.ca 2018. All Rights Reserved)

Yet Sophie Swant, the team’s senior leader, was quick to talk about a different kind of warming trend, one which came late in Saturday’s contest, and amidst a lot of in-game adversity.

“I think today was all about grinding and finding what works in the moment,” said Swant, who despite shooting 1-for-9 from distance, scored a game-high 18 points to go along with nine rebounds “I think everything we took from three was a good shot, and our mentality will always be that if you’re open, you take it. But we also had people going to the boards. We pushed the ball. And we found ways to be creative on offence.”

Sam Beauchamp was a tower of strength for the Clan, altering Alaska shots in the paint and grabbing a game-high 11 rebounds, and although Ozi Nwabuko fouled out late, she grabbed all eight of her rebounds in the second half.

“Sam was brilliant,” Langford added when asked about the 6-foot-3 Beauchamp who took sabbatical from the team last season and has returned better than ever. “She had five blocks, but she altered at least 10 more shots.”

Overall, it was a game that strengthened a young team’s belief in itself.

After Thursday’s 70-55 loss at Anchorage, the Clan seemed stuck in mud over the first half Saturday and trailed 33-30 at the half.

SFU freshman Georgia Swant (left) is guarded by Alaska Fairbanks’ Angela Murnion during GNAC contest Saturday. (Photo by Paul McCarthy property of UAF Athletics 2018. All Rights Reserved)

They played incredible defence the rest of the way, however, holding Fairbanks to just 5-for-25 shooting over the entire second half.

In fact SFU’s third quarter may have been the best defensive stanza of the program’s entire NCAA tenure.

Although they were only able to score 11 points themselves, the Clan held the Nanooks to just three points the entire frame.

Those points came off the host’s first shot of the frame, a trey by Angela Murnion. Alaska proceeded to go 0-for-15 the rest of the quarter and the Clan took a 41-36 lead into the final frame.

SFU, however, only managed to score three field goals over the final quarter.

A Jessica Jones lay-in followed by a Sienna Lenz triple made it 46-40 for SFU. Then, after Kendal Sands, Swant and Beauchamp began a parade to the charity stripe over the final three minutes, the Clan finally got a big shot when they needed it.

“I can say that sometimes you have to wait a long time before a big three falls to help you,” said Langford of a three-pointer hit by point guard Tayler Drynan that made it 57-45.

“After the loss to Anchorage, we all came together after the coaches left the room,” said Swant of this past Thursday. “We all talked about why we are here, and we refreshed ourselves on what our season goals were and what it takes to win.

“For morale and for belief, with such a young team, wins are important,” she added. “So it was good to be 1-1 on this trip and instill a belief that we are a good team that can go out and get wins even if we’re not playing our game.”

And about that minus-33 degree weather?

Forget about it.

“Two years ago when I was here it was minus-47,” said Swant matter-of-factly. “So, it’s not as cold, but I know a lot of the other players are feeling it.”

Sands, Drynan and Jones each finished with eight points in the win. Beauchamp had seven and Lenz a further five. Marian Walmsley led the Nanooks with 16 points and seven rebounds.

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