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McDonald among Canadian stars at Final 8 women's basketball tournament


TORONTO — Haley McDonald knew she'd had a decent night. But what mattered more was that her Acadia Axewomen had held on to beat UPEI in the Canadian university conference semifinals.

It wasn't until moments after Acadia's 88-84 victory last weekend that she was presented with player of the game honours, and someone asked: Do you know what you just did?

"I had no idea," McDonald laughed. "I thought I had scored like high 30s, low 40s maybe. '(They said) you broke the AUS record,' and I was like 'Oh my god. Wow. I had no idea. It's amazing.'"

In one of those dreamy "out-of-body" games, as McDonald described it, the five-foot-five guard poured in a conference-record 51 points — 32 of them in the second half alone. She went 10-for-11 from the line, and connected on five three-pointers.

But she just wanted to win.

"I've never had my game come together like that before," said McDonald. "I'm normally kind of hot from the three-point line or I can get to the line a few times. But in that game my team needed the push, we needed the points. And I think it was just a moment where it was like: We're not losing. I'm not going to lose. I want our team to win, we want to get further. I just wanted to play and have a great time."

No. 6 seed Acadia faces third-seeded Saskatchewan in Thursday's first round of the U Sports Final 8 women's basketball championships on Thursday.

The Axewomen bowed out in the quarterfinals to the same Huskies squad last season. But Saskatchewan coach Lisa Thomaidis knows McDonald will be a handful this year.

"She's talented, she can score in a number of different ways. And so, obviously a lot of what we're going to do is going to be focused in on limiting her," said Thomaidis, who's also head coach of Canada's national senior women's team. "But they do have other scorers. (Jayda) Veinot is good, she's averaging close to 18 points a game, and they have a lot of other people who are good one on one players, so yeah, we definitely need to take care of her but not forget about the others."

No. 2 McMaster tips off first against No. 7 Concordia at Ryerson's Mattamy Athletic Centre. Then Acadia takes the floor against Saskatchewan, No. 8 seed and host Ryerson Rams play No. 1 Laval, and No. 4 Ottawa faces No. 5 Regina to cap the first round.

Virtually every team that practised Wednesday at the MAC said women's basketball is enjoying more depth this year than ever before.

"The great thing that's happening now is there's parity across the country," Thomaidis said. "I think that just helps every team get better, when you have quality teams across the country everyone else is driven to keep up with the Joneses so to speak. So in the past when there was dominance out west, and then it moved to Ontario for a bit, and now it's just it seems like anyone in the tournament is capable of winning it."

McDonald is proof of the depth coast to coast. The junior comes from Port Williams, N.S., a picturesque town of 1,200 residents that's known — according to travel brochures —for its distilleries, vineyards and famous cheese house.

Theresa Burns, who's in her 26th season coaching the McMaster Marauders, said the growth in the women's game has been "wonder to watch, as a long-time basketball person."

Burns believes it's partly that women's basketball has kept pace with societal change.

"I think just the growth in women's sports. You see it in soccer, the Christine Sinclair phenomenon. You see it in women's hockey and the same thing in basketball. Society has finally caught up and said, 'Yeah, this is the real deal and women deserve this.' You throw the good coaching in on that train and it's all kind of snowballed into some great growth."

And great growth has made for a deep Final 8 tournament. 

"I think there's a lot of parity in this tournament. I think anyone can win," Burns said. "You look at those matchups and, again, I understand all the seeding stuff (but) anybody can beat anybody. For sure there’s going to be an upset somewhere in one of those seedings … the strength of this tournament is incredible."

Lori Ewing , The Canadian Press