The Badgers got one step closer to winning their first national championship earlier today, as they edged out the Calgary Dinos by a score of 72-71 in the quarterfinals of the U Sports Final 8 tournament.
Prior to the game, however, the Badgers picked up another pair of accolades, this time at the national level. Head coach Mike Rao was named the women’s basketball U Sports Coach of the Year in just his second season on the job, while Melissa Tatti was named a First Team All-Canadian for her historical play this season.
The Badgers earned the No. 2 seed in the tournament after winning the OUA championship last weekend, while the Dinos received the No. 7 seed as they were selected for the at-large bid (the wild card team) in the bracket.
Jessica Morris came out of the gates firing, recording 17 points in the first half off 5-6 three-point shooting to give Brock a four point lead at the break. A back-and-forth third quarter saw the lead cut to three heading into the fourth, where the duo of Sam Keltos and Melissa Tatti once again secured the win.
Keltos finished with a game-high 24 points to go along with five rebounds, three blocks and three steals. She scored 10 points in the final frame including back-to-back threes which swung the score from a three point Badger deficit to a three point Badger lead.
Tatti tallied 17 points, seven rebounds, five assists and three steals, while coming up big down the stretch when her team needed it most. Kristin Gallant fired a perfect pass as Tatti took advantage of a Dino miscommunication, before flipping in a reverse layup while being fouled. She completed the three-point play to put Brock up 70-69 with 1:28 left to play.
After Laura Grabe of the Dinos scored on the other end to put Calgary up one, Tatti weaved her way through the paint and finished what would go on to be the game-winner with 25 seconds left, as the Badgers were able to get a stop on the ensuing play that sealed the win.
The Badgers were fortunate to come out on top of this one, as they were outrebounded 42-29 and allowed 17 offensive rebounds while grabbing just five of their own. The lopsided affair was especially evident during the four-minute spurt where Keltos was on the bench; without her presence on the court, the Dinos dominated the Badgers inside. She was never subbed out again afterwards.
Brock also gave up a ton of open threes to Calgary, who shot 12-35 from distance. If they shoot 13-35, the outcome is different. Such missteps could bode costly down the road, especially as the competition gets stiffer.
“You can try and read as much as you can off stats and the film that you watch, but as far as feel goes, it’s a different matchup,” said Dinos head coach Damian Jennings, when asked if the inter-conference matchups are harder to prepare for. “Brock does what they do very well and they have three bonafide players that just took them to an OUA championship and a top-four finish, so the facts are the facts, so that wasn’t new or different, but how it feels on the court, for sure, it’s different.”
The Badgers are now set to face the six-seeded UPEI Panthers, who upset the three-seeded Ryerson Rams in their quarterfinal matchup by a score of 75-70. Panthers guard Lauren Rainford, who was named to the AUS All-Rookie team, scored 14 points off 4-5 threes in the third quarter alone, setting up a 23-2 Panther run to start the fourth quarter, ending the Rams title pursuit in the process.
The Panthers finished their season with a record of 17-3 and won the AUS championship after defeating Acadia in the finals. They are led by Jenna Mae Ellsworth, who racked up virtually every possible individual accolade this season.
She was named the U Sports National Player of the Year for her stellar play, while also being named a First Team All-Canadian. She also won the AUS MVP, the AUS Defensive Player of the Year Award and was named an AUS First Team All-Star in addition to winning the Atlantic conference championship.
She finished with 22 points, 13 rebounds and five assists in their win over Ryerson.
“I know we have to stop number four,” said Sam Keltos, referring to Ellsworth when asked about Brock’s upcoming game. “We just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing which is getting stops.”
Reese Baxendale, the Panthers’ other AUS First Team All-Star, was named AUS Finals MVP after finishing with 25 points, five boards and seven assists in the title-clinching game. She finished with 19 points and nine rebounds against the Rams, but left the game late after being laid out twice by a pair of hard screens set by Bronwyn Williams. She did not return, although by the time she left the game there was under a minute left to play.
The Panthers also have a two-time AUS Defensive Player of the Year roaming the paint in Carolina Del Santo, who is playing her final season with UPEI after coming over from Barcelona, Spain in 2016.
“I haven’t looked [at UPEI] to be honest. My staff is working on something now and I’ll look at it too,” said Badgers head coach Mike Rao. “But we got to watch [Ellsworth].”
The Badgers and Panthers are set to play on Saturday at 1:00 p.m. at the TD Place in Ottawa. Fans can tune in on CBCSports.com or the CBC app, but streams will surely be playing all over the Brock University campus.
“Hopefully the mood in St. Catharines is good and they’re cheering us on,” said Rao. “Hopefully we can just play hard. Just keep playing hard.”