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 dominant UBC Thunderbirds of the 2000s.
Brian Swane, Special to Canada West
EDMONTON - As the competition gets stronger every year, the UBC Thunderbirds of the 2000s might be the closest thing to a dynasty that Canada West women's basketball sees for a very long time.
UBC won three national titles between 2004 and 2008 – a run that saw success beget more success, beget even more success.
"They had a lot of rookies on the team in 2004, so going forward they already had that experience in their first year, which a lot of people don't get that opportunity and they were able to help other players as they progressed on the team," says Leanne Evans, a forward who began attending UBC in 2006.
In the 2004 national championship game, UBC beat the Regina Cougars in Winnipeg. Two years later, in Fredericton, the T-Birds defeated the Cape Breton Breakers. Then in 2006, they beat the Cougars again, this time in Saskatoon.
Cait Haggerty, Julie Little, Erica McGuinness played on all three UBC championship squads, while several of their teammates won two titles.
"I think that's so important to have somebody with the xperience of going to a championship and knowing what it's like," Evans says. "There's always something different about playoff games, or national championships and having that past experience obviously helps.
"It also gives you confidence when you're going into nationals and you've been there before and know what to expect, and it's more of 'Ok, let's do this' rather than 'Oh, we're here'."
The T-Birds won both as underdogs (in 2004, knocking off a Cougars team that had beaten UBC by 37 points in the Canada West gold medal game just 15 days earlier) and as favourites (defeating the Capers, who were ranked fifth, in 2006).
"In 2004 it was a big surprise for them to win it ... but when I was part of the team we were always confident in our preparation, how we worked together, what we were doing, and our game plan going into games, so I guess we weren't going in scared," says Evans. "We were thinking of it as an experience where we were going to be successful or have an opportunity to win."
The two national titles that UBC didn't win between 2003-04 and 2007-08 were won by their most fierce rival, the Simon Fraser Clan. The teams played each other 25 times over those five years, with SFU holding the slightest of edges, winning 13 times. But while the Clan won 11 of 17 regular season meetings, the T-Birds dominated in the post-season, going 6-2 (including 2-0 at nationals) against the Clan.
"Simon Fraser was definitely always our biggest rivals for any games, whether they were at UBC or Simon Fraser, there was huge crowds and lots of people out and lots of emotion," says Evans. "I think both teams always knew we were getting into a good game, because both teams got really riled up to play."
After failing to qualify for the 2005 Canadian championship, UBC returned in 2006. There, the T-Birds knocked off their arch-rivals from SFU in the semis before defeating Cape Breton 56-53 for the title.
"It came down to the final moment, and that was such an exciting one because they were a tough team," Evans says. "When you play Simon Fraser you're so familiar with their players and style of play, but with Cape Breton we hadn't seen them all year so ... to be able to come up with that win in such a tight game if was very exciting."
In 2007, the T-Birds were poised for a repeat. They dominated the Canada West regular season, going 21-2, and won all six of their playoff games to capture the conference championship. But their time at Nationals came to an abrupt end with a loss to Dalhousie in the very first game of the tournament, in St. John's.
The stunning upset left a bitter taste in the T-Birds' mouth. For the players who were first-years when UBC started its run of success in the 2003-04 campaign, 2007-08 would be the final chapter.
"They knew this was their last chance and last opportunity to go to nationals and compete for a championship, so obviously the hunger for them was elevated," says Evans. "When you have a core group of players who set their goals, everyone buys in. It's contagious for everyone else around you."
The T-Birds had another spectacular regular season, going 21-2, and again won the Canada West title in the playoffs. At nationals, they defeated Toronto and McMaster to reach the final, where UBC crushed Regina 67-46 in a game that was never in doubt.
"It's like in any game when you get up on somebody and you just keep pushing on the pedal on and don't let up," Evans says. "It's hard to come back from a big deficit."
That was UBC's sixth and most recent Bronze Baby, the first three coming in consecutive years from 1972 and 1974. Over 11 appearances at nationals, the T-Birds have reached the final eight times and won nine medals.
"Just qualifying for nationals is a challenge enough," says Evans, who is now an assistant coach with the Victoria Vikes, who will host the 2017 ArcelorMittal Dofasco U SPORTS Women's Basketball Final 8, March 9-12. "Looking back you realize that it's not easy to win Nationals and it's pretty amazing to have gone and had the opportunity."
Next up on the Road to the Final 8…the Victoria Vikes (Thursday, March 9).
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.