Trinity Western's quartet of fifth-year veterans (left to right) Tessa Needham, Sarah Buckingham, Tessa Ratzlaff and Jessie Brown look to keep their senior seasons alive when the Spartans face UNBC to open the 2019 Canada West playoffs Friday at the Langley Events Centre. (Photo by Scott Stewart property of Trinity Western athletics 2019. All Rights Reserved)
Feature University Women's Basketball

With ‘Fighting For Friday’ their refrain, TWU Spartans put Canada West season on line in sudden-elimination clash with UNBC

LANGLEY — It started out as the worst of times, it finished as the best of times. 

And now, after closing out their Canada West regular schedule with a game that serves as the perfect microcosm of their maddeningly inconsistent campaign, have the Trinity Western Spartans women’s basketball team shown enough to suggest that the playoffs can indeed be a brand-new season?

On Friday (7 p.m.), the Spartans (12-8) take to the floor of the Langley Events Centre in a single-game sudden-elimination setting as the No. 8 seed preparing to host a dangerous, rebound-hungry pack of ninth-seeded UNBC Timberwolves (11-9) from Prince George.

It’s a game with a pick ‘em feel to it, yet from the TWU perspective, it comes on the heels of this past Saturday’s decisive 75-57 Seniors Night win over the visiting Fraser Valley Cascades, a regular season finale that started ugly, yet somehow managed to tie together all the loose ends which had haunted the team over the second half of the season.

Against the Cascades, Trinity Western might have played its worst quarter of the entire season, turning the ball over eight times and trailing 17-5 after the first 10 minutes on 2-of-11 shooting from the field. In the process they made their home Langley Events Centre court look like an opposition barn filled with hecklers.

Yet on the same night, they may also have played their best three quarters of the season, doing a complete about-face by shooting 26-of-50 (52 per cent) from the field and 12-of-13 from the free-throw line en route to scoring 70 points the rest of the way.

“The last three quarters, things finally broke through for us,” said Trinity Western head coach Cheryl Jean-Paul. “We had been waiting for the game where everything made sense, where multiple players scored and things didn’t feel forced.”

For the Spartans, it wasn’t going too far to call it a revelation.

A 6-0 start which included a sweep of Regina (16-4) early in the season had Trinity Western looking like it was ready to build on last season’s 16-4 team, one which came a win shy of qualifying for the program’s first U Sports national championship tournament.

An injury, however, during the season’s sixth game to star 6-foot fifth-year senior forward Tessa Ratzlaff wound up being among the most significant in U Sports women’s basketball this season.

Ratzlaff may have only missed four games, a pair of weekend series leading up to the winter break against UNBC and Victoria in which the Spartans went 1-3.

Yet upon Ratzlaff’s return after the extended winter break, Jean-Paul discovered just how different the team’s dynamic was from a season ago, because over the next nine games leading to Saturday’s regular-season finale, the roster seemed to reject any notion of chemistry in what would seemed to have been a simple plug-and-play proposition.

The Spartans went 5-5 over those final 10 games, yet they were swept by both UBC and Lethbridge, the only two teams they faced over the second half whose RPI index wound up higher than their own.

Since January, Trinity Western head coach Cheryl Jean-Paul has worked to make the right kind of selfish a liberating force for her Spartans. (Photo by Scott Stewart property of Trinity Western athletics 2019. All Rights Reserved)

The main issue?

“We had two or three players that instantly started deferring, and Tessa felt the pressure to take over games early in the semester,” said Jean-Paul of heavy load placed upon the shoulders of Ratzlaff, who nonetheless led the team in scoring (16.8 ppg) and rebounding (7.8 rpg) this season.

“I think we have five very capable scorers on our team,” continued Jean-Paul of Ratzlaff, Jessie Brown, Sarah Buckingham, Nicole Fransson and Kianna Wiens, “but they been such great teammates to each other, and our style has been so unselfish. It has been getting everyone to understand that selfish doesn’t hurt.”

Jean-Paul wants the context of the ’S’ word to be understood correctly.

“You don’t want to use that word,” she continues, “but you need to understand that when one of them becomes an assertive scorer, they all do. Nicole and Sarah stepped up huge when Tessa went out, but they have both struggled at times since to continue to do that when a 20-point-per-game scorer comes back in the game. We’ve been helping them to try and understand that they can still be aggressive and not take away from Tessa’s looks.”

The proof seemed to be in the final box score last Saturday.

Brown finished with a game-high 25 points, showing how dialled into her wheelhouse she was by shooting 6-for-10 from distance.

Buckingham brought her in-the-details presence with five rebounds and five assists to go along with 19 points.

Ratzlaff finished with 17 points, 10 rebounds and a pair of blocks.

And Fransson scored eight points off the bench.

While Trinity Western’s Tessa Ratzlaff (centre, 14) gets out on the break, a trio of teammates in (left to right) Nicole Fransson, Sarah Buckingham and Kianna Wiens also push the tempo. (Photo by Scott Stewart property of Trinity Western athletics 2019. All Rights Reserved)

“We have been trying to help our players find their place in the system and to get back to where they were,” said Jean-Paul of the season’s trying second-half grind. “All of a sudden, they realized that this is actually fun, and it had been a long time since it was fun.”

And yet the Canada West’s play-in round, unlike the best-of-three quarterfinals which await its four winners, is an unforgiving 40-minute gambit.

The internationally-flavoured Timberwolves, when they get the right match-ups, are an imposing group, especially as it pertains to the length-size-strength trifecta represented by 6-foot-4 rebounding force Vasiliki Louka (Greece), 6-foot face-up swing forward Madison Landry and powerful guard Maria Mongomo (Spain). Alina Shakirova (Russia), a potent scoring guard,is also part of the mix for head coach Sergey Shchepotkin.

UNBC was performing at its full powers while TWU played without Ratzlaff in mid-November when the Timberwolves’ swept the Spartans (78-77, 83-54) in Prince George.

And while significance of Ratzlaff’s absence in those games can’t be overstated in terms of paint presence and rim protection, from the Spartans’ perspective, nothing will matter come Friday if they are not first playing with the purpose, trust and joie de vivre which has made them the most successful group in the program’s history.

“On Saturday, they realized that they were done with this, of always fighting from behind,” Jean-Paul re-inforced of lessons learned from the regular-season finale.

She then added that there has been even more focus put on performing better in the Friday opener of the last few weekend series, as it best mimics the sudden-elimination playoff game they began to feel would be in their cards.

“We’ve been talking about fighting for Friday the last few weeks in preparation,” the coach added. “We need to have the mindset of not leaving anything for the next day.”

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