In the lead up to the U SPORTS Women's Basketball Final 8 in Victoria (March 9-12), Canada West is taking a trip down memory lane, highlighting the conference's past national champions. In our latest feature, we look at the former Great Plains Athletic Conference champion Winnipeg Wesmen, who captured the Bronze Baby back-to-back-to-back from 1993 to 1995.
Brian Swane, Special to Canada West
EDMONTON - Several years after he had coached his last game for the University of Winnipeg, walking off the court a champion, Tom Kendall was visiting the JFK museum in Boston.
A woman noticed his Winnipeg shirt, he recalls, and struck up a conversation.
"She said, 'Do you remember those women's basketball teams that were so good?'"
"I looked at her and I go, 'Madam, I coached those teams.
"She went crazy. It was hilarious."
Even stateside, people knew the Winnipeg Wesmen teams that dominated Canadian university hoops in the early '90s, capturing a trio of national titles and tying the North American collegiate record for consecutive games won.
"I'd run into people in the weirdest places and tell them my name and they'd ask if I was from Winnipeg, and I go, 'Yeah' and they'd say, 'Are you the guy that was coaching that team?' and I'd go, 'Yeah,'" Kendall says, laughing.
"It's kind of embarrassing some times."
Led by three-time champs Sandra Carroll, Sandra Corby, Pam Flick Danis, Andrea Hutchens, and Jody Rock, Winnipeg celebrated with the Bronze Baby in 1993, 1994, and 1995.
"One of the unique things about all three (championship) teams was the lack of personal ego," Kendall says. "Every single one of those kids put the team first and when your motivation is to help the team and you sacrifice everything else, you can achieve some pretty amazing things."
"We had a core of five players from the (1992-93) team through the (1994-95) team who were exceptional players and basically were the foundation of that team," Kendall continues. "When you have something like that it's easier to go from year to year with the same system and the same kind of motivation."
The Wesmen are one of only five teams in Canadian women's university basketball to claim three straight national championships, yet they are perhaps best remembered for winning an astonishing 88 games in a row between October 1992 and December 1994. That tied the record held by the UCLA Bruins men's team of the legendary John Wooden that went undefeated for a stretch of nearly three years beginning in January 1971.
"We knew that we were going to lose at some point, so our attitude was, 'Let's not worry about that, let's just try and get better every single day,'" Kendall says. "I don't think the athletes on the team ever took what was happening for granted.
"I don't recall ever having practices that were just so-so. Every time those kids came to practice they wanted to get better and we did get better, and it just got to a point where we got on a roll and we'd walk into a gym and we were already 15 points up."
Having come away from Nationals with bronze and silver in 1991 and 1992, respectively, the Wesmen began their 1992-93 schedule with rightfully high expectations.
Winnipeg won its first game, October 24 against Alberta, and the next one, and the one after that. The holiday break came and went, and the Wesmen just kept winning, rolling through the regular season and into the playoffs without a blip.
By the time they reached nationals in mid-March, more than a year had elapsed since the Wesmen's last defeat a 64-51 loss to Victoria in the 1992 final.
Fittingly, the 1993 championship final would be a rematch of that game against Vikes, and in Victoria's home gym, to boot.
And even that wasn't enough to stop the Wesmen from knocking off the defending champs, 70-63, and claiming their first national title.
"It was a back-and-forth affair until about two minutes to go, and then we played some pretty good defense and we got some high percentage shots which went in and that was basically the difference," says Kendall. "If the game would have gone another five minutes, who knows? But it was one of those games where we had the ball enough in the last two minutes to outplay them. It was pretty exciting because it was (at Victoria)."
Buzz started to build around the Wesmen, as they continued to rack up wins through the 1993-94 campaign, and broke the Calgary Dino's mark of 69 consecutive victories in North American women's collegiate hoops between 1988 and 1990.
On March 13, 1994, at nationals in Calgary, Winnipeg beat Toronto to successfully repeat as undefeated champs. But the mood post-game was hardly celebratory among the Wesmen, who were given a scare when their coach passed out and was taken to hospital.
"They thought I'd had a heart attack," he says. "The reality was I hadn't really eaten for two days and I'd just been running on fumes.
"It got to about a minute to go in the game and I knew we were going to win and I think my body just went, 'Ok, buddy, it's over, you're done', and I collapsed.
"I went back to the hotel and the team was in the lobby waiting for me, and I said, 'Well, ok that wasn't very good, I didn't get to see the medal ceremony or the banner, so I guess we're going to have to win it again next year,' and that was the motivation for the next year."
By the time the 1994-95 season tipped off, everyone had taken notice of the Wesmen. Winnipeg was packing gyms for all its games - home and away – including an 89-57 drubbing of Manitoba on Nov. 25, which tied UCLA's mark.
Game No. 89: Winnipeg vs. Manitoba at the Duckworth Centre, Dec. 2, 1994.
Winnipeg's record-breaking attempt was broadcast nationally on TSN, unprecedented for Canadian university regular season competition. The audience outdrew an NBA mega match-up pitting Patrick Ewing and the New York Knicks against Shaquille O'Neal and the Orlando Magic.
The Wesmen led by 13 at halftime and wouldn't trail in the second half until a field goal put the Bisons ahead 64-62 with 4.4 seconds left.
It was the final scoring play of the game.
There would be no new record.
"For me, the most important thing that happened in the streak is what happened after," Kendall says. "We jumped on a plane four days later and went to Hawaii to play Hawaii, Louisville, and Troy State - all Division I teams – and beat 3 all of them. We came back and in the first game after Christmas played Manitoba - who had beaten us - and doubled their score."
Winnipeg did not lose again that season, reeling off nearly two-dozen wins, culminating with a championship-clinching 72-61 triumph over – who else? – Manitoba at Nationals in Thunder Bay.
"That for me said everything I needed to know about the athletes on that team. After the loss, they did not back down ... didn't miss a beat, just continued to go, beat three Division I teams, came back, beat everybody else in the league and won a third championship. Now I think that is remarkable."
A number of Wesmen players graduated following the 1994-95 season. Kendall, who shared a line in the record books with the man many consider basketball's greatest coach (the 88 straight has since been eclipsed by Geno Auriemma's Connecticut women's powerhouse) decided to move on too. The coach coached NCAA Division II for a few years, before returning to Canada to serve as director of athletics at Saint Francis Xavier and then Guelph. He retired in 2015.
"I knew we'd be in a rebuilding phase and I knew that every coach in the CIS was waiting to beat me, so I took a job in the states and I never coached in Canada again," Kendall says, laughing.
"They were all waiting to beat me and I went, 'Not a chance.'"
In recent years, the University of Winnipeg women's basketball teams of 1992-1995 have been inducted into multiple sport hall of fames. Over those three seasons, the Wesmen went 111-1.
"They were so tight as a group," Kendall says. "They just played their hearts out for each other, they had a lot of respect for each other, and they all knew their role on the team and accepted it. It was a joy to coach all three teams, it was special."
Next up on the Road to the Final 8…the Manitoba Bisons (Wednesday, February 22).
More on the U SPORTS Women's Basketball Final 8:
For the first time since 1993, the best women's basketball teams in Canada will converge on the University of Victoria for the U SPORTS Final 8 national championship tournament.
Watch Canada's brightest basketball stars compete for the national championship title at the new CARSA Performance Gym in Victoria from March 9-12.
Tournament packages are now on sale for the 11-game event at govikesgo.com/nationals.