A banner summer for Manitoba basketball got even better earlier this month when the 15-and-under girls provincial team made history at the national championships in Fredericton.
The squad became the first 15U girls team in the province’s history to win a medal, finishing second to Quebec in the gold medal game. The 17-and-under boys achieved the same feat earlier in the month.
The tournament also marked the first time a 15U Manitoba team defeated Ontario in national competition.
The semifinal game against the five-time defending champions from Ontario was one the players and coaches won’t soon forget.
The first good sign came when guard Raizel Guinto nailed a half-court shot to beat the buzzer before halftime.
Then Manitoba made four clutch free throws — two by guard/forward Kyanna Giles with seven seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, and two by Guinto with nine seconds left in the first overtime — to stay alive.
The team rallied late in a back-and-forth second OT, played solid defence and hung on for a 73-71 win.
"I was crying," said Guinto, a Meadows West resident who at 13 was the youngest member of the team.
"By the end of the game I was exhausted," added point guard Kyia Giles, a Central neighbourhood resident who joined her fraternal twin Kyanna on the all-tournament first team.
"I was so happy and excited."
Although an outside observer may not have given the Manitobans much of a chance against their eastern neighbours, head coach Sarah Lundgren said her players believed they could play with the Ontarians.
"We were fortunate enough to see Ontario play against a couple of teams," Lundgren said.
"We saw the flaws in Ontario’s game, and we were able to pick them apart. The biggest struggle is seeing the name on the jersey. You can see ‘Ontario’ and think it’s going to be so hard."
Kyanna Giles said she was confident in her team, but wasn’t sure how the Manitobans would handle their size disadvantage.
"The players they had were much bigger than the players here in Manitoba," said the 14-year-old. "It’s difficult for us. We’re pretty small. Ontario had 10 people over six-feet. We had about four."
Guinto said she came into the tournament thinking the team would win a medal, and enjoyed every step of the journey.
"It was fun living in the dorms," she said. "It was great to play in front of the crowds and to be online (on webcasts)."
One of Manitoba’s greatest assets was the fact that many of the players were very familiar with each other long before the provincial team was formed. Seven of the players are part of the same Manitoba Magic team in the Winnipeg Minor Basketball Association’s Rising Stars League, and several were part of the second-place team at last year’s Western Canada Summer Games.
"I knew I was going to have a good team," Lundgren said, adding that much of the roster could be back next year unless some players choose to move up to the 17-and-under age group.