Jefferson Hagen / MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON — Down by as many as 16 points at one point of the fourth quarter, the MacEwan Griffins valiantly fought back and nearly stole the game from Alberta on Saturday afternoon at City Centre Campus.
Unfortunately, 'nearly' was what they'll take away from the contest as Kayla Ivicak's game-tying attempt at the buzzer bounced off the backboard, bounded off the rim and out.
As a result, the U of A Pandas hung on for a 55-53 win to push their Canada West-leading undefeated record to 10-0 at the end of the first semester of play.
"I think we just stopped playing basketball and thought the game was over," said Pandas head coach Scott Edwards, whose team was still up 12 with 4:13 left before the Griffins charged. "Credit to MacEwan because we quit playing."
In a comeback attempt that had shades of MacEwan's upset over the No. 1-ranked team in U Sports – the Regina Cougars – earlier this season, the Griffins pulled to within six when Brielle Wise stole the ball deep in the offensive zone and turned her layup into a three-point play.
"All the things we did in the last five minutes is everything we talked about earlier in the game," said Griffins head coach Katherine Adams. "That's what we wanted to do and it just took us 35 minutes to clue in to 'this is what this looks like' and 'this is how we can be effective doing this.' That's too bad. It was a little bit too little, too late.
"But it was a heck of a comeback from our girls to really dig in there at the end of a long semester. This is Game 10 and we're feeling the stress of school and the grind of the season. So it was a heck of an effort for them to come back the way they did."
When Ivicak put two free throws down with 1:53 left, the Pandas' lead was three. But Alberta made their trips to the charity stripe count late to remain two up. Kristen Monfort-Palomino attempted a three-pointer with a defender in her face, but the ball was tipped out, giving the Griffins one last possession with 1.5 seconds left. Ivicak's shot off the inbound pass missed.
"I thought it was our best weekend overall as a team," said Edwards, whose squad showed off the toughest defensive front MacEwan has faced in a first semester that's included matches against nationally-ranked Regina and Victoria. "I think we're getting better every night."
The Griffins were unable to break down a wall of Pandas that seemingly had most angles covered for a good portion of the game.
Alberta was so stingy defensively in this one that they held the Griffins to a mere seven points in each of the second and third quarters.
"They defended our ball screen in a way we haven't seen this year and it took us – we could see what was open – but to execute and move the ball it took us 35 minutes to figure that out and attack aggressively," said Adams, whose team will enter the break with a 4-6 record.
"They did a good job and they played us physical. We got good shots at the rim, but any time you have kids going 2-for-10, 2-for-12, 3-for-12, obviously their defence is doing something well to alter your shot."
Ivicak led the Griffins with 15 points on 6-for-13 shooting, adding six rebounds. Paige Knull had 11 boards to go with four points, while Kerilynn MacLennan chipped in nine.
Their defence wasn't too shabby either, holding the Pandas to just 12 points in the second and fourth quarters. The downside to that aggressive defensive front, though, meant Juhee Thompson, Kendall Lydon and MacLennan were all fouled out before the crucial final seconds.
"I challenged them to be a little more disciplined and not pick up some of those fouls because they're unnecessary," said Adams. "We don't need to foul when we're so deep on the clock and they're in a situation where they're going to throw up a tough shot."
Speedy Maddie Rogers led the Pandas with 17 points and five steals, while Elle Hendershot, who fouled out with 1:20 left, had 11 rebounds for the Pandas.
The Griffins will return to action on Jan. 6 when they visit the University of Fraser Valley, while Alberta next plays host to Calgary on Jan. 5.
For Edwards, the 10-0 record is something that's in the past.
"I don't care about that," he said. "I care about getting the next win. It's over with, let's move on to the second semester."