As the teams gathered in the hallway at the Northern Sports Centre on Saturday evening, Ruth Hamblin had one request for her coach, Wendall Ewald.
“Coach,” said Hamblin, towering over everyone in the hallway as she had in leading the Houston Christian Wildcats to a second straight provincial basketball championship, “I need a hug.”
Ewald was happy to oblige, then hugged each of the other senior players on the squad. It was a moment to savour, because there may not be another one for a while.
“We might not have a team next year,” Ewald had said quietly a few moments earlier. “It’s one of the problems with being a small school. We only had nine girls in Grade 11 and 12 this year, so we may go from hanging our second straight banner to not even having a team.”
But that’s worry for the next school year.
Saturday night was about an 80-63 win over the host Cedars Christian Eagles in the championship game, the second title game in a row between the northern rivals. Last year’s game saw the Wildcats post a 75-48 win. The win also gave the Wildcats a 26-0 record this season.
Ewald said the Eagles showed some new styles in this year’s final.
“Their pressure defence this year is much improved over last year. They obviously wanted to put pressure on our guards, but it ended up that our guards could handle it.”
Cedars coach Al MacDonald agreed the pressure his team put on had worked, but not well enough.
“We found some success pressing, we forced some turnovers, but then we had too many turnovers ourselves. I thought we had more depth than they did, so the pressure would hurt them more. They’re a very fast team, though, and they stayed away from fouls.”
Cedars Christian had a large crowd at the Northern Sports Centre rocking early, as they jumped out to a 6-2 lead, but drives by Kelly Ewald and inside baskets by Hamblin had the Wildcats up 19-10 after the first quarter.
The second quarter saw the Eagles cut a 24-11 Wildcats lead to 24-22 before the Houston went on a 12-point run of its own. That seemed to be the story the rest of the game, as Cedars would cut into the Houston lead, only to see the Wildcats not just recover, but pull ahead a little more.
Both coaches agreed the Cedars press had been designed to limit the influence of Hamblin on the game, but both also said the results showed something important.
“They’re more than Ruth,” MacDonald said. “Their guards handled the pressure, and they made baskets when they needed to.”
Ewald said Hamblin’s presence on the court changed the game.
“Ruth influences so much, even when she doesn’t have the ball. She draws defenders to her, and that leaves opening for the other girls.
“It’s part of being a team. Ruth sacrifices some points for herself to help the team.”
In some of the earlier games on the tournament, Hamblin had sat out long stretches, especially in the second halves. Against Cedars, though, she played until there was just 1:29 left in the fourth quarter.
“That was the game plan, to play Ruth until the end, until we felt safe. I had five girls who could play the whole game if we needed them to.”
MacDonald said his team played hard, but didn’t have enough answers.
“It was a hard, gritty performance. On offence, we found some answers, but we didn’t have enough stops on defence.
“We needed everyone to have their full A-game out there, and it just didn’t happen. It was a real gutsy effort.”