With last season’s playoff run in the rearview, the U of M Bisons women’s basketball team is entering a new campaign with ever loftier expectations.
The team saw playoff action for the first time since 2009 last year, but was bounced in the first round following an 81-72 loss to the University of Alberta Pandas.
Last season was the first time fifth-year head coach Michele Sung was able to coach her team into a playoff spot and she said it was well worth the wait.
“I think the last three years we’ve seen gradual growth,” said Sung.
“It’s nice to finally see the payoff and it’s also nice to know that you’ve got to be patient with stuff sometimes — it doesn’t happen instantaneously.”
Throughout the last three seasons the same faces have been a force on the court for the Bisons. Fifth-years Claire Harvey and Tiara Licsi, fourth-years Nicole Konieczny and Emma Thompson and third-year Taylor Randall are just some of the familiar names blossoming within Sung’s system.
“We were super young when I first started here, and we’re still that same group now,” said Randall.
“Now we know how each other play, and we’re more used to each other’s actions. So I think it feels good, especially for our fifth-years, to let them have these wins too. It’s really nice.”
Rookie Brooke Evason is one of the new faces looking to make an immediate impact.
The players in the locker room are hungry for more than a first-round exit from the Canada West playoffs as some of them enter the twilight of their collegiate careers.
“Our expectations are high,” said Randall.
“We want to get into the playoffs and get far into playoffs. Last year wasn’t enough for us just to get to the first round — we want to push it and just not let teams take us for granted.”
Sung has been consistent in her approach to the game. Manitoba’s defence-first mentality has led to numerous fast-break opportunities and this has already paid dividends in the new season.
With two wins against the Mount Royal University Cougars last weekend, the Bisons are off to a 4-0 start to the season. In those four games, Manitoba put up 89.8 points per game while giving up 73.5 points per game — good for second and 10th in the conference respectively.
“It gives you such energy when you get a defensive stop and then you can relay that and it’s easy,” said Randall.
“It’s get a stop and easy breakaway layups, so if we can keep that up and really put our effort into defence, we can roll.”
The Bisons have opened the 2018-19 season with four consecutive wins and Sung gives all the credit to her players.
“They’ve been working tirelessly, and they’ve been responding to when we ask them to work harder and work a little bit smarter. So it’s been great.”
Sung said the Canada West conference is often led by teams with veteran groups, and she realizes that’s where her team is now.
“We’re finally at that point where we are competing with those groups,” said Sung.
“I think we’re heading into a real good test of games here to see where that holds up versus some of the top teams in our conference and in the country. We’re looking forward to it and it’s a challenge that we’re finally like 100 per cent authentically excited for.”
Looking back on previous seasons, Randall and the rest of the Bisons team sees how much they have grown over the years. The team is now on the winning end much more often and it has been great in building team morale.
“It’s huge for us as a team and as a culture,” said Randall.
“In past years we haven’t been good, but we’ve stuck to our game plans, and we’ve stuck to what we knew and what we need to do on practice. I think it’s now paying off, like all the work and progress we’ve put into it. It feels really good to now see the results.”
The team has a lot of potential this season but Sung said she broke down the schedule at the beginning of the year and set goals.
She said the coaching staff sits down at the start of the season to “map out our schedule” and make note of stretches where the club will need wins, where they expect to get wins and where there may be potential roadblocks.
Manitoba will be back on the court during the Nov. 9-10 weekend when the UBC Thunderbirds invade the Investors Group Athletic Centre for a two-game series. Tip-off will be 6 p.m. CST on Nov. 9 and 5 p.m. CST on Nov. 10.