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 back at the 1999 CIS champion Alberta Pandas.
Brian Swane, Special to Canada West
EDMONTON - The University of Alberta women’s basketball team was near unstoppable in 1998-99.
The Pandas won pre-season tournaments in Edmonton and Winnipeg. They won another in Halifax over the holiday break. They had two separate eight-game winning streaks in the regular season.
They would have won virtually every time they stopped on the court.
If it weren’t for those darn Vikings, that is.
“The only issue we had was trying to beat Victoria,” chuckles former head coach Trix Baker. “That was the team that we really struggled with.”
In the regular season the Pandas went 16-0 against every team not nicknamed Vikes, and 0-4 against their Vancouver Island nemesis. Alberta actually managed to post a victory over Victoria in the Canada West final, which was great, except it was a best-of-three series, and the Pandas lost the other two games.
So when Alberta found itself opposite Victoria in the national championship game in Thunder Bay, Ont., you can guess which of the two Canada West teams was favoured to walk away with the gold medal.
The Vikes were the defending Canadian champs and came into the 1999 championship as the top-ranked team. The Pandas, on the other hand, were peaking towards 2000 and 2001, when they were set to host back-to-back nationals in Edmonton.
“(1999) was kind of a year where we felt if we get to nationals and get some experience that we could come back and win at least one of the two years,” Baker says.
“I had a lot of players that were in their fourth year, so we thought if we get to Thunder Bay and we could do well, then we could come home and win the next year.”
Somewhere along the line, those plans got fast-tracked by a year. And in retrospect, it may have occurred as far back as the winter of 1998.
Coming off a successful regular season, Alberta hosted Calgary in the best-of-three Canada West semi-final series, and was poised to advance. But after winning Game 1 rather handily, the Pandas dropped the next two, both by three points.
“Our season was over quicker than we expected, and the girls started training two weeks after the season was over, and that wasn’t with me, that was on their own,” says Baker. “They got out and they started training and they committed to being fit and playing more.”
Their off-season dedication showed when Alberta started the 1998-99 Canada West regular season with an 8-0 record, allowing more than 60 points just twice and never surrendering more than 63 in their first eight games.
“I remember saying at the beginning of the year in tryouts and once the team was picked, ‘If you want to be a starter on this team, you have to be defence first,’ because I had a lot of really good scorers, and we had a really balanced attack,” recalls Baker. “But I said, ‘if you want to be on the court at the end of the game, if you want to start for us, you’ve got to be defensive minded.’”
It wasn’t until mid-January that the Pandas tasted defeat, losing 70-65 and 62-49 to the Vikes during a weekend series in Edmonton. Alberta then won its next eight, before closing out the season with a pair of six-point losses at Victoria.
The Pandas tipped off the post-season by sweeping Calgary in the Canada West semi-final in Edmonton, conquering their demons of the previous year. Alberta would then go on to lose the conference championship at Victoria, but not before slaying another dragon by posting a 62-60 overtime win in Game 2, pushing the Vikes to the brink. Both teams qualified for nationals.
“We battled every time that we played Victoria, there were no blowout games, we didn’t lose to them by much, and then in playoffs, when we finally beat them, that was really a big hurdle for us,” says Baker. “They still came out as the Canada West champions, but we had finally beaten them.”
The Pandas packed their bags for Thunder Bay, where Lakehead was hosting the Canadian championship tournament. In the quarterfinal Alberta defeated Manitoba 65-57, then knocked off Laurentian 55-48 in the semis. On the opposite side of the draw, Victoria cruised through Concordia and New Brunswick.
The final was set: For an eighth time in a span of two months, Victoria and Alberta would meet.
By this point, it was fairly assumed the Western rivals knew one other inside out. Except Baker had kept a couple tricks up her sleeve.
“I never really showed everything that we wanted to do to them,” the coach says. “I guess in playoffs we got pretty close, but in the National final, if they called a certain play that was against our man-to-man, we went zone, and if they called a certain play that was supposed to be run against our zone, we ran man-to-man. So we basically keyed our defense off of what they were running offensively and tried to confuse them.”
It wasn’t pretty - the Vikes would score the fewest points of any of their 38 exhibition, regular season and post-season games, while the Pandas had their second-lowest scoring output – but it worked: Alberta led most of the way, en route to a 54-46 victory.
“We didn’t have a lot of success scoring, but we really stopped them,” Baker says. “We knew everything they were going to run and who was going to take the shot. We just had enough experience, the girls actually were able to do what we wanted to do, and our game plan was just to play really good defense, never give them a second shot, because they were a pretty good offensive rebounding team.”
It was Alberta’s first, and to this day only, Canadian championship for its women’s basketball program. The Pandas were unable to hoist the Bronze Baby either year they hosted nationals, finishing fourth in 2000 and runner-up to Regina in 2001.
By that point, however, the impact of the team arguably superseded results on the court.
“It was great because when we hosted, I thought we really helped increase the profile of women’s and girls’ basketball in the city of Edmonton,” Baker says. “Attendance was up, people were excited about girls’ basketball and was really neat to be able to host and see that happen."
Next up on the Road to the Final 8…the Calgary Dinos Tuesday, March 7.
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.