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The game was sold out and played live on national television.
Those are things that were simply unheard of at the CIAU, now known as U SPORTS, level.
But 25 years ago this week, on Dec. 2, 1994, the Duckworth Centre was standing room only to watch the University of Winnipeg Wesmen's women's basketball team attempt to make history.
The Wesmen were riding an incredible 88-game win streak that began on Oct. 24, 1992. They shared the record for most consecutive wins by a North American university team with the 1972-1974 UCLA Bruins, who were led by legendary coach John Wooden and star centre Bill Walton.
To claim the record as their own, all the Wesmen had to do was defeat their crosstown rival — the University of Manitoba Bisons.
"John Wooden is an icon. John Wooden is a god in basketball circles," said Tom Kendall, who coached the Wesmen from 1979-95, in a phone interview from his home in Guelph, Ont.
"The media in Winnipeg kept phoning him when we got to the 88th game and asked him what he thought of it. Well, God almighty, you know it's Winnipeg, Canada. Does he care?"
Who knows if coach Wooden actually cared, but many people certainly did. The game wasn't just the talk of the town but the entire country. The Duckworth Centre was packed with 2,300 fans, who were mostly cheering for the Wesmen, and the game was broadcasted by TSN. The word even got to then-prime minister Jean Chrétien, who wrote the Wesmen ladies a letter wishing them luck, which Kendall read to the team before the game.
"For most of us, it was unlike anything we've ever experienced... the week leading up, with all the attention we were getting, I think it was pretty unique and pretty surreal," said Pam Danis (neé Flick), a Wesmen guard from 1991-95 who is now a teacher in Cambridge, Ont.
"I can say now, 25 years later, we were pretty fortunate and pretty lucky to be able to experience that at that time because women in sport and the attention women were getting in sport certainly wasn't as common as it is today. To be able to receive all that attention was a pretty cool experience."
The Wesmen were the defending two-time national champions and hadn't lost to the Bisons in their last 18 meetings. The two teams met the week before and the Wesmen crushed the Herd 89-56 at the U of M. All signs pointed to a Wesmen win. So much so that there was a Converse shoe ad on the back of the program sold before the game that was already congratulating Winnipeg for breaking UCLA's record.
In the first half, the Converse ad didn't look silly at all as Winnipeg led by 16 at one point.
However, the second half was a different story. Bisons guard Terri-Lee Johannesson took over and finished with a game-high 28 points. But the story of the game was defence, as Bisons freshman guard Marjorie Kelly was a thorn in Wesmen star Sandra Carroll's side all night, limiting the three-time CIAU player of the year to 17 points. Carroll averaged 27 points per game that season.
"It still remains to me one of my best memories of playing. We were the underdogs at that time," said Kelly, who was named the top rookie in the country that year and went on to help the Bisons win national championships in 1996 and '97.
"There's a certain energy that comes with that. We kind of inspired one another and pumped each other up. (Head coach) Coleen (Dufresne) prepared us really well for this game. I just remember being really excited and thinking something big was going to happen that night."
Despite Johannesson and Kelly's heroic efforts, it looked like the streak would reach 89 wins. The game had gotten closer, but the Wesmen were still in control as they led 61-56 with 3:30 remaining. Bisons starting forward Laurie Ann Palmer had already fouled out of the game and at the 2:51 mark, Kelly joined her on the bench after picking up her fifth foul. Just more than a minute later, the Bisons lost another starter when forward Victoria Neufeld, who had 21 points, fouled out.
But Winnipeg couldn't buy a bucket and they were hanging on to a 62-60 lead with a minute left on the clock. Wesmen forward Andrea Hutchens drove into the paint and was met by Johannesson, who ripped the ball away and ran down the court to tie it 62-62. Trying to regain the lead, the Wesmen put the ball in the hands of Carroll. With under 30 seconds left, Carroll had a mid-range jump shot clang off the front of the rim and bounce out of bounds. It was Bisons ball with 22 seconds left for a chance to spoil the party, which is exactly what they did.
Lorissa Crellin squeezed between a pair of Wesmen defenders and hit a shot off the backboard to give the Bisons a 64-62 edge with 4.4 seconds left. After a timeout, the Wesmen ran down the court and found Carroll, who quickly chucked up a three-point shot that missed the mark. The streak was officially over. The Bisons won 64-62 and the entire Duckworth Centre was in shock.
"We had lost to them for two straight years and we weren't slouches," said Dufresne, who coached the Herd from 1984 to 2001.
"This team was top three in the nation and we had to face Winnipeg so many times with us both being in GPAC (Great Plains Athletic Conference, which has since merged with the Canada West conference). It was difficult to lose over and over again. (Johannesson) was a more experienced player and she was pretty much fed up with losing to the Wesmen and not being able to find the key to that. I think that was a huge part of the elation that 'Wow, we've finally beaten Winnipeg.' It looked like a national championship final game."
Yes, the Wesmen were incredibly disappointed they had fallen short. But forward Sandy Deibert (Corby), a Wesmen from 1992-97, believes it helped the team in the long run.
"I think it's kinda special that we tied the record. I don't feel anything bad about it," said Deibert, who is now a RCMP officer in Thompson. "I'm sure at the time, we all felt a little bit upset that we hadn't come through, but that's sport. You take away what you put into it... losing in sport teaches you valuable lessons and we became stronger for it."
Indeed they did. Soon after the loss, the Wesmen boarded a plane to Hawaii for a tournament. They beat Louisville, Troy State and Hawaii, which were all NCAA Division I programs. The Wesmen didn't lose again that season and they avenged their lone loss by beating the Bisons 72-61 for the national title in Thunder Bay, Ont.
For Kendall, in what was his final season at the U of W before he took a coaching job at California University of Pennsylvania, the most memorable thing about the streak is what happened after their loss on Dec. 2.
"That's what I was most proud of is the fact that they were so mentally tough and resilient after that loss. If you think about it, you don't want to lose to anybody, but you especially don't want to lose to your crosstown rivals. Right? That's essentially what happened and that could've been devastating for a normal athlete. But that particular team and group of players was so tough that it didn't phase them. They just moved on," Kendall said.
To react so positively to such a heartbreaking defeat, clearly, this Wesmen team was built differently.
"There was a special quality that's really hard to pinpoint and describe, but it was there and we knew it," Deibert said. "We felt confident in ourselves and each other. I'm kind of getting goosebumps right now just talking about it."
If you were to ask any of the people who witnessed the Bisons put a halt to history, they too, would likely experience goosebumps.
"It was a great, great time to be a part of women's basketball," Dufresne said.
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.
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