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Off and on season could still have very happy ending for Mustang women’s basketball team

When the 2021-22 Ontario University Athletics women’s basketball season started, things felt almost normal, at least from a pandemic perspective.

But like everything else over the past two years, OUA basketball was not immune to wild swinging changes.

As the Omicron variant began its surge, university sports hit the pause button in December. The timing wasn’t bad. Exams and holidays filled the calendar and, at first, took up any time that would have been spent on the court.

But the pause on activities grew longer. It was determined that university-level athletes were not considered elite athletes by the province of Ontario and therefore were not even permitted to practice, let alone think about playing games and continuing a varsity season.

The list of “elite” sports leagues that the Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture cobbled together actually included leagues that fed the university and college ranks but it left off the OUA and OCAA.

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The loosening of provincial restrictions eventually allowed seasons to resume but it shifted them, pushing them well into March when they would normally be over and national champions were crowned so that students could zero in on academics heading to the final weeks of the school year.

You won’t hear much complaining. Being back and being successful has taken away the sting any stoppage or government oversight could have caused.

And for the Western Mustang women’s basketball team, the success has been very real.

They are set to play the Brock Badgers Wednesday night in an OUA West final. The winner will meet either Ryerson or Carleton for the Critelli Cup and the title of Ontario champions.

Western earned a bye through the first round of playoffs and then knocked off the Guelph Gryphons 61-57 on March 19 in an OUA West semi-final.

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The four-point spread at the finish certainly didn’t exist all game long. The teams were tied in the final minutes. As head coach Nate McKibbon thinks back, all he can remember is the tension surrounding how tight the game was.

“I always tell people I’m glad I’m bald, because otherwise I’d be reaching for something in those close games,” laughed McKibbon.

“We just want an opportunity to win at the end, and our players gave us that opportunity and played with some confidence and some poise towards the last couple of minutes and basically pulled it out.”

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Nothing comes easy at this point in the season and in a year like this, no one would ever expect it to but the way the athletes on his team have handled the ups and the downs has really impressed McKibbon.

“It basically became Groundhog Day. It was two days to prep and then a game. Two days to prep and then a game. So it was just trying to keep people engaged, trying to keep people healthy. I think everyone was just so grateful to be back and playing games that you didn’t really have to motivate them very much. But this is also the latest we’ve ever played.”

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That means school and sports are encircling the lives of the players in ways they wouldn’t normally, which McKibbon has found remarkable.

“(They are doing) way better than I did as a student,” smiled McKinnon. “They are certainly way more intelligent than I ever was. Eighty per cent of our team is all-academic, which asks you to achieve an average of more than 80 per cent. I believe our team average is something like 84 per cent.

“Most of them are studying stuff like chemistry and biology. We have robotic engineering. We have business. We have grad students. I’m amazed at them each and every day, and I think their biggest resources are each other. They push each other to be better on the court and they help each other when it comes to classes, when it comes to support or just to be a shoulder to cry on at times.

“Because believe me, I don’t even know what these athletes go through on a day-to-day basis to be so successful in every aspect of their lives.”

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The Mustangs embody the essence of a team. Big plays can come from any player at any time and McKibbon feels that will be key against a team like the Badgers.

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“We have to match the intensity defensively,” McKibbon pointed out. “I’m sure they’re going to be really well organized. They’re really well-coached. They know their system inside and out. I think we need to be tough and find some ways to score when their defence is really working.

“And it’s a playoff game. We’ve just got to keep our composure and make sure that we continue to play my same basketball right until the end.”

The fact that there is an end to play for is perhaps the most exciting element of an unconventional season and if Western can make things go right in St. Catharines, Ont., against Brock, then they will open the door to a championship opportunity.

You can’t ask for much better than that.

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