By TERRY FARRELL, Herald-Tribune staff
March 13th, 2011
The Grande Prairie Regional College Wolves are ACAC champs.
The Wolves won the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference women's basketball championship Saturday, ending a 16-year drought.
It's the school's first women's basketball championship since the 1994-1995 season, and the third overall. They also won in 1984-1985.
It has been a fast climb for this current pack of Wolves and their coach Dave Waknuk, who took over the team midway through the 2009-2010 season.
The Wolves were a .500 team when he was promoted to head coach.
They finished the season still as a .500 team, but came together from the beginning of the 2010-2011 season and never looked back.
"No, that would be the quick answer," he said, when asked if he expected so much success, so soon.
"I knew we had a good group here and I knew we had a team that could do special things, but I would be lying to you if I said I thought that this could happen this quick."
It was quick, and stylish. They won by first eliminating the defending champion SAIT Trojans right in their own gym, then by mounting one of the most spectacular comebacks in ACAC hoops history in the championship game.
The Wolves decimated the Trojans, 71-52 in Friday's Final Four semifinal, then completed the achievement with a 63-59 victory over the Grant MacEwan Griffins, who came in seeded No. 2 in the nation.
And just how monumental was the comeback in the game against the Griffins?
The Wolves were down 16 points with 8 1/2 minutes to play. They scored 24 of the final 27 points in the game to win.
"The final game did not really go according to plan," said Waknuk. "We were still down 12 with 5:15 to go. We outscored them 26-13 in the fourth, but it was a 24-3 run to close the game.
"We like to pride ourselves on our fourth-quarter play, our second-half play, but to do that against a team that is so efficient, as MacEwan, and to basically be outplayed for 3 1/2 quarters, then to come back when you're down that much to that good of a team.
"It's hard to even describe how it happened, but it's all credit to the girls.
"They have been such a great team all year long and they just dug in and said 'We're going to win this thing' and they did."
The weekend was especially sweet for Wolves captain Jaelle Buhler, who, as a fifth-year, was playing in her final weekend of ACAAC ball.
"I'm feeling pretty good right about now," she said on Sunday. "Pretty great, actually. I am doing pretty great."
She said the comeback in the final game was a reflection on how the team has supported each other all season.
"We have always had the mindset of never quitting, all season, and it really showed through in that last game," said Buhler, who added that Waknuk has a lot to do with the mindset of the team.
"He's just done a great job. He has just surrounded us all with people who believe in him and believe in each other."
As she has done all year, Andria Carlyon led the team, with 24 points and 10 rebounds for her second double double of the weekend, but Waknuk said the comeback went far beyond her efforts.
"It was a team effort," he said.
"Andria obviously got going. But Katrina Fialova hit a three when the game was tied with 1:15 to play. She put us ahead and that was huge. And we had big plays from Jaelle (Buhler) from Lenka (Rohova), from Chelsea Comeau. Those five really carried the load."
The Wolves' defence played a key role in the comeback, pressuring the Griffins into untimely shots and turnovers in the final eight minutes.
"(They were) missing shots, but we really picked up our defence," said Waknuk.
""We went to our press, which we have been using a bit but mostly kind of saving and keeping in our back pocket. We went to it and they turned over the ball a whole bunch. Shots were falling for us and not for them.
"It just seemed that we had this burst of energy that they did not have."
Waknuk said there was a specific point when he really believed they were going to complete the comeback.
"When it got down to about a 10- or eight-point game, with about four minutes to go, I thought 'OK, this is really going to happen'," said Waknuk.
"You could see (the Griffins) really slowing down. You could see them settling for shots that weren't going in, and you saw us picking up the intensity, picking up the drive, and the ball was going in for us.
"It was not a great shooting day for us overall."
"We shot 9-for-35 the first half, and 14-for-32 the second half, for a game total of 34%. So not a great shooting day at all, but everything came late. Everything came in the last five minutes."
Just in time.
For most of the game, it was as if the Wolves had taken a page out of the Trojans' playbook.
The SAIT girls had their worst shooting of the season in Friday's semifinal against GPRC.
SAIT was the only team GPRC had not beaten all season, and although the Trojans finished first in the South Division, with a 17-1 record, they appeared ripe for the taking.
They had lost two of their last four games and the 10-10 Augustana Vikings took them to the limit in a best-of-three quarter-final series. The Vikings won the first game 82-74 before the Trojans rallied for two straight wins.
There was no such rally Friday.
The Trojans shot an abysmal 19.5% from the field, including 10% from three-point range. It was particularly bad in the second half, where they went 6-for-45 from the floor (13.3%) and 9.1% on three-pointers.
"They missed shots, but our defence was a big reason for that," said Waknuk. "When you have that size that we have, we made shots tough for them. Rachel Caputo had 38 points against Augustana in one of their playoff games and we held her to 1-for-15 shooting. A lot of that is our defence."
Caputo did drain seven of eight free-throws, but finished in single digits (nine points) for the first time all season.
Carlyon, on the other hand, had arguably her best game of the season, with an emphatic double double.
She scored 23 points and corralled an astounding 20 rebounds. She also chipped in with five steals and four of the team's 10 blocked shots.
"You know, you want those performances in your biggest games, I mean that's when the big-time players do it and she did that," said Waknuk. "She's a game changer."
And in adverse conditions - a hostile gymnasium, virtually sold out, with Trojan fans everywhere.
"It was a loud building," said Waknuk. "They had a noisy group behind us. We had to pull our benches out and had our timeouts in the middle of the key, basically, because they had a lot of noisemakers behind us.
"That crowd was there to cheer. They were used to cheering all year but by the end of the day we had taken the crowd out of it."
The Wolves learned well from January's loss to the Trojans.
In that game, SAIT built up a 21-12 first-quarter lead and the Wolves could never catch up.
They made sure the same thing did not happen on Friday.
The Wolves led 12-7 after the first 10 minutes and had a 33-30 lead at the half.
"It wasn't a pretty first quarter, with both teams feeling each other out but we were happy that we got off to a good start and then kept the momentum going," said Waknuk. "It took a little while for us to get going, but once we did we just kept rolling."
The Wolves took total control in the third quarter, outscoring the Trojans 20-7 to take a 16-point lead into the final 10 minutes.
"We really wanted to send a message in that game and I thought we achieved that," said Waknuk. "That was really important to us, not just the win, but the way we won."
Almost as impressive as the way they won on Saturday.
Buhler summed up the championship match in one sentence.
"Really, we won the impossible game on Saturday," she said.
The Wolves have a week to refocus before heading to Niagara College in Welland, Ont., March 17-19, for the national championships.