Playoff atmosphere as Wesmen face Cougars

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Every so often, there is a regular-season game that feels like a playoff game.

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Every so often, there is a regular-season game that feels like a playoff game.

The stakes are higher, the atmosphere crackles with tension and good teams seem to raise their performances to another level.

Those are the expectations for the Winnipeg Wesmen and Regina Cougars, who face off in a pair of crucial Canada West women’s basketball games Friday and Saturday at Duckworth Centre.

David Larkins / Wesmen Athletics

Raizel Guinto leads Canada West with 3.2 steals per game.

The Cougars, 9-1 in conference play, were ranked No. 1 in the most recent U Sports national coaches poll. The No. 8 Wesmen, meanwhile, are 8-2 and tied with three other schools for second place in Canada West.

“It’s a pretty unique year,” said Wesmen head coach Alyssa Cox on Tuesday. “There’s a ton of parity throughout the league and it makes every game a big game. So, as much as Calgary (last weekend) was a big weekend for us, Regina will be a big weekend coming up. And then pretty much every weekend after is still important.”

Winnipeg beat Regina five times en route to a trip to an appearance in the national championship game last season but there are significant differences in 2022-23. Winnipeg’s Keylyn Filewich, the country’s player of the year in 2021-22, graduated last spring and Regina’s talented trio of breakout stars, which includes second-year guards Jade Belmore and Cara Misskey and import post Julia Vydrova, is making a major impact. Belmare is fourth in conference scoring at 19.5 points per game and Misskey is seventh at 18.5.

The 6-2 Vydrova is 11th in the conference with 7.8 rebounds per game.

“We rely on those three and then we try and surround them with a bunch of shooters that can all, on a given day, knock down some threes,” said veteran Cougars head coach Dave Taylor. “We’ve probably leaned even heavier on the three-point shot.

“Us and Winnipeg, we’re almost identical this year. Last year, with Filewich, they had a much more of an inside game, which is why we couldn’t guard them. But this year, if you look at the two teams, we both shoot a lot of threes, we score a lot and we’re up and down (the floor). Not a lot of back-to-the-basket type scoring.”

Both squads have a backcourt-influenced approach to winning. With guard Anna Kernaghan still out due to injury, the Wesmen rely even more heavily on Kyanna Giles, in the midst of a career year, Robyn Boulanger and NCAA transfer Raizel Guinto.

“We both have similar personnel in terms of skill set and we even run some of the same actions and offences and it couldn’t be more different from Calgary where we went in completely undersized and it was two teams that were so different in their way that they play,” said Cox. “With Regina, they’re a lot more similar to us. So it’ll be interesting to see how that all plays out.”

Giles, who transferred from Regina, has looked like a woman on a mission, making noticeable gains in her production. She currently leads Canada West with 22.0 points per game, third in assists (5.0 per game) while also sitting fourth in rebounding (9.0 per game).

“I feel like every year since I’ve been in U Sports my numbers have increased,” said Giles. “I used to tell people I don’t feel like I’ve reached my peak point yet, I don’t feel like I’ve been the best player I can be yet so it’s good that I keep going up and keep progressing.”

Taylor, who coached Giles for three seasons, noticed an extra motivated Giles in her fifth and final year of eligibility.

“She’s become a better three-point shooter in the last couple of years and she’s still — I said this yesterday in practice (to my players) — the best open court player in the country,” said Taylor. “It’s not even close. So if you allow her to get downhill and transition, you’re going to have to foul her or she’s going to score.”

David Larkins / Wesmen Athletics

Kyanna Giles is having a career season with the U of W Wesmen women’s basketball team.

“She is going to impact the game, but you hope maybe that it’s not one of those games where she tears you apart and she’s making everyone around her better, too. If she gets on one of her rolls, it’s really hard… There’s good chance she could win (U Sports) player of the year this year.”

Giles doesn’t avoid the MVP talk. She would love to duplicate the feat of her older sister, Keneca Pingue-Giles, who earned the Nan Copp Trophy in her final year at Ryerson in 2015-16.

“Coming in, it was always one of my top goals was to win player of the year so I feel like I’m working extra hard to get that,” said Giles. “Not only that but to send my team to nationals. I’ve been to nationals every year so I don’t want to go down from that. This year is a bit more more personal for me.”

Guinto has elevated her play, too.

Last Saturday, she scored a career-high 25 points while adding eight rebounds, four steals and five assists and four steals as the Wesmen dropped the Calgary Dinos, 88-84. Her 13.5 points per game are 22nd in the conference and her Canada West-leading 3.2 steals per game attest to her defensive prowess.

“I guess my approach is always like, what can I do in that moment, in that game to ultimately give us the win?” said Guinto. “I mean, scoring has never been like, my ideal goal. I don’t always have to put up X amount of points, X number of rebounds — it’s never been about that for me. As long as, as a team we win and we get the outcome that we want.”

Added Cox: “Her impact on the court has been exactly what we thought. I think some of the unexpected positives that she’s brought are just the leadership and the voice that she brings in practice. She’s another player who’s got a ton of experience and she’s been great in helping and leading some of our younger athletes to help them improve. She speaks up in practice, she speaks up in games and has been a really good addition.”

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky
Reporter

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

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