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Breakthrough bronze at nationals for UFV women's hoopsters
Through the highs and lows of a long season, University of the Fraser Valley women's basketball coach Al Tuchscherer's message to his players was constant.
They were working, he told them, towards playing their best basketball of the season at the end.
That vision crystallized on Sunday at the University of Windsor, as the Cascades knocked off the Saskatchewan Huskies 69-57 in the bronze medal game at the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) national championship tourney.
It's the first-ever CIS medal for the UFV women's hoopsters, and the second overall for the Cascades athletic department since the basketball and soccer teams moved up from the Canadian Colleges Athletic Association (CCAA) to the top post-secondary sports league in the land in 2006. The women's soccer squad won national bronze in 2010.
But UFV got over the hump on the third try with an incredible showcase of offensive depth. Only two Cascades – player of the game Kayli Sartori (13 points) and Courtney Bartel (12) – scored in double figures, but eight players notched at least five.
And that's just the way Tuchscherer likes it.
"We've definitely got individuals with a lot of ability, but that's not what our team is about," he said. "We like the fact we've got multiple weapons on our team and we can hurt you in a few different ways.
"It was a total team effort."
In the Canada West final, UFV had led 34-30 at halftime, but Saskatchewan opened the third quarter on a 16-3 run en route to victory.
On Sunday, the Cascades found themselves in a nearly identical situation, leading 30-27 at the break.
But this time, UFV owned the third quarter – they outscored the Huskies 25-13 in the frame as they got hot from long range. Nataliia Gavryliuk drained a three-pointer on the Cascades' first possession, Bartel rained down a trio of triples in quick succession later on, and Sarah Wierks ended the quarter with a buzzer-beating trey.
UFV kept the suspense to a minimum in the fourth quarter, never letting the lead shrink below nine points.
"Coach told us at halftime that we were in the same boat last weekend (against the Huskies)," Cascades point guard Aieisha Luyken said. "He warned us that if we didn't do it first, they'd do it to us. . . . So we took it to another level to see if Sask could match us.
"It wasn't about changing our game plan or anything – it was believing in ourselves and believing we had the right tools to get the job done," she added.
"Today was definitely a Cascade win, all-around. The whole team stepped up."
UFV, coming off a 65-45 loss to the three-time defending national champion Windsor Lancers in the semifinals on Saturday, were motivated to come home with a medal after coming so close to a conference championship the previous weekend.
"After they (Saskatchewan) won the Canada West title from us, I think we were a little bit more hungry for it," Tuchscherer said. "Not to take anything away from them – they're a great program.
"But there was a lot riding on it for us. It meant a lot to us."
Tuchscherer was especially pleased for his graduating fifth-year seniors – Luyken, Bartel, Nicole Wierks, Sam Kurath and assistant coach Alexa McCarthy, who had her playing career cut short due to injury.
"I'm so proud of those kids," he said. "They've been in our program for five years, and every single year they've managed to raise a bar. They've left a fantastic legacy of excellence for future generations of Cascades. I'm happy they could go out in that fashion. They deserve it."
"It feels awesome," Luyken said, reflecting on the last game of her university career. "We've been trying to get here since our first year. We've been working to leave a legacy at UFV, and winning bronze at nationals is a great way to go out."
It's remarkable what Tuchscherer has built at UFV since shepherding the Cascades into the CIS eight seasons ago.
After enduring some lean years early on, the UFV women have advanced to the Canada West Final Four in each of the past four campaigns, and to the CIS Final Eight in each of the past two.
"It doesn't seem like it's been that fast to me – it feels like it's been a long, hard time coming," Tuchscherer said with a chuckle.
"When we first got to the CIS, the idea of playing in a Canada West Final Four was so far removed. There were some games where we (Tuchscherer and assistant coach Anthony Luyken) just wanted to hide under the score table.
"This (national bronze medal) is pretty cool," he added, lauding the sweat investment of his players, who have logged 146 practices together this season. "There's a lot of hard work that guess into this, and there's no guarantee that it's going to end in something like this. But they put in the work, and they deserved the success they achieved."