Heroic Overtime Comeback Gives CMU First NIAC Championship
The Providence Pilots did what they could to try to ice Madison Wood, but the 2nd year product of Morden Collegiate held her nerves and calmly swished a championship-winning free-throw with 3.7 seconds left in overtime to give CMU a 72-71 lead and their first-ever NIAC championship banner.
It was an all-Manitoba final on Sunday afternoon in the 2020 Northern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference women's basketball championship game when the Pilots and Blazers clashed in Cass Lake, Minnesota, both teams leaving everything on the floor in an effort to bring a trophy back to Canada.
After receiving a bye through the first round, on account of qualifying as the tournament's number-one seed, CMU advanced to Sunday's final on the back of an 89-63 semifinal win over the Turtle Mountain Mighty Mikinocks, while the second-ranked Pilots won their quarterfinal on Friday against Nueta Hitadsa and edged the Red River Rebels in their semifinal for the chance to defend the women's basketball championship banner they raised in 2019.
All signs pointed to a repeat for the Pilots, after Providence overcame a 10-point deficit to take the lead in the second quarter. The Pilots ended the half on a 21-5 run, holding the Blazers to just 8 points in the quarter, and topping CMU by shooting 50% from the field to the Blazers 20%, good for a 32-28 lead at the half.
Coming out of the break, both Manitoba heavyweights looked determined to throw the knockout punch that would help them pull away. After cashing in a three-ball to cut the Providence lead, CMU's Shirliz Apiyo sank another long jump shot to nose the Blazers ahead, 42-43. Providence would claw their way back and take a 50-47 lead when Katelyn Thiessen drove for two of her game-high 24 points but on the ensuing CMU possession, Anna Pyne found her range from distance to draw CMU even again. Pyne would finish with 16 points on 5 of 15 from behind the arc.
CMU found themselves in foul trouble in the fourth allowing the Pilots to take their largest lead of the half - 4 points - after leading rebounder, Jessica Marx-Houndle fouled out and Providence shot a perfect 6 of 6 from the charity stripe. Another Pyne three-ball cut the Pilots' lead to one and CMU would reclaim the lead when Julia Schatkowsky picked Thiessen's pocket at mid-court and converted a breakaway layup for a 57-56 advantage.
The single point lead-changes continued through the final minutes of the fourth until Providence's Trinity Blair stepped to the free-throw line, dropping both attempts for a 3-point lead with under a minute remaining on the game clock. Forced by the effective zone defence of the Pilots, CMU would rely on their 3-point shooting for most of the second half and with hands in her face, Apiyo came up big when her game-tying effort from distance swished to tie the game again and force overtime. Apiyo would finish with 13 points and went 3 of 8 from downtown.
Overtime was a special five minutes for Wood. Held to zero points over the opening forty, the 5'10 forward scored 5 of CMU's final 8 points of the game including the championship-winning free-throw to help CMU overcome Providence's largest lead of the game - a 6 point gap - with under a minute to play. After Thiessen stepped to the line to shoot bonus shots twice and add 4 points to the Pilots' lead, Wood showed her quick hands, poking the ball away and finishing a transition layup under pressure to cut the lead to 4. The Blazers would draw even closer when Pyne's prayer was answered from long-range to bring CMU to within one, 23 seconds left in the period.
In desperation, CMU fouled to put Megan Wiebe on the line where the Pilots' guard made good on 1 of 2, giving CMU the ball back with under 20 seconds remaining and trailing by two points. As the second ticked down after the CMU inbound, Wood took her opportunity to put the ball on the floor and drive at the hoop, hoping to find the basket that would tie the contest. Despite the obstruction of two Providence defenders who were deterined to stop Wood from scoring, she eluded the contact and finished off the glass, tying the game 71-71 with 3.9 remaining and shooting every seated teammate out of their seats and into each other's arms. With the championship on the line, the threat of another overtime period looming or worse yet, an opportunity for the Pilots to reclaim the lead, Wood kept her cool, took 3 dribbles, locked her eyes on the basket and delivered a win for the Blazers.
February has been good to the Blazers, who began the month by taking the two wins they needed to lock up first-place when they won both games over the Mighty Mikinocks in Belcourt, then defeated the Red River Rebels on their home court to claim a third-consecutive MCAC Women's Basketball championship. This weekend, CMU closed out the month by winning their first NIAC championship in an unimaginably exciting finish; all part of the most successful season the Blazers have had under seventh-year head coach Joe Di Curzio who was recognized by the conference with the honour of his first NIAC Women's Basketball Coach of the Year award.
"This was definitely a phenomenal season for us and what a way to finish it!" said Di Curzio. "The players really pulled through for each other and it required a full team effort today just like it has in every win this season. It was an incredible team performance and a win that will echo in our memory for a very long time."