Jasper Place High School – The St. Albert Skyhawks were no pushovers in Thursday's opening game against the host women's team at the REB Invitational Basketball Tournament.
"We never gave up, even when we were down a little bit or when it was close," said game star Shelby Hucul after the Skyhawks shocked the Jasper Place Rebels 60-57. "They sort of underestimated how well we can play."
The gritty Skyhawks, a perennial 3A provincial contender, made the 4A Rebels look pretty average while posting leads of 21-15 after the first quarter, 31-26 at halftime and 45-38 after three quarters.
"We really pushed it out there. We were sprinting down the court a lot," Hucul said. "At our school we focus on hustle, working hard and pushing down the court. We don't have any height, so we really have to use our speed to be successful."
It was an impressive team effort as the Skyhawks outhustled the slow-moving Rebels, played tough D, spread the offence around while coming through in the clutch with momentum-shifting buckets.
"I'm happy with any win that we get against a big school but like I always tell the girls, I don't care whether we win or lose, we have to play to our level of excellence and we did that to a certain degree today," said head coach John Dedrick.
The victory set the stage for Friday's semifinal against the Spruce Grove Panthers. The score was unavailable at press time. A win would propel the Skyhawks into tonight's final at 6 p.m. against the Harry Ainlay Titans or O'Leary Spartans. A loss would drop the Skyhawks into the third-place game today at 2:15 p.m.
Against the Rebels the Skyhawks pulled off a major upset with their best player, Grade 12 playmaker Hilary Annich, in foul trouble. Annich fouled out with under six minutes to play, and the Skyhawks leading by four, after recording 13 points.
"Hilary struggled. She had three offensive fouls today," Dedrick said. "As our leader she has not hit her stride yet and when that happens we'll be in good shape."
Annich's only points in the second half were two key buckets in the third quarter. With 1:35 left until quarter time the third-year Skyhawk and team MVP in 2008/09 drained a shot to break a 38-all tie. With 35 seconds remaining she hit nothing but net to put the Skyhawks up by four.
Hucul, 16, helped pick up the slack offensively with timely buckets in the second half. Her buzzer beater to end the third quarter, a leaping one-handed bank shot from outside the paint after driving down the court following a turnover in Skyhawks territory was a thing of beauty.
With about a minute left in the match, and the Skyhawks up 58-51, the Rebels reeled in a missed shot by Hucul. As the rebounder tried to throw a deep touchdown pass, Hucul alertly stuck a hand up while racing back on defence and the ball deflected it into the waiting hands of Kendall Lydon and the newcomer from Washington State deposited the turnover into crucial points.
"Shelby had a great game. She has been playing awesome," Dedrick said.
Hucul downplayed her performance, which included a couple of game-tying buckets in the third quarter, to go with a handful of assists and some spunky defence.
"I couldn't have played like that without the help of my team," said the Grade 11 guard/wing, a major contributor in her rookie season as the Skyhawks qualified for their fifth straight 3A provincials as the Edmonton zone winners for the third year in a row.
Lydon led all Skyhawks in points with 15. In the third quarter, and score knotted at 36-all, Lydon stole the ball from a surprised-looking Rebel and put it away with a slick layup. She also nailed a three-pointer with 3:29 to play to extend the lead to 56-45.
The Grade 10 forward has been a welcome addition to the team.
"Kendall has really been a nice, steadying force for us and we can go deeper [into the bench] than we thought we could," Dedrick said.
A pair of Grade 12s, forward Andrea Heavener and post Courtney Gogowich also made significant contributions in the win. In the fourth quarter Heavener sank two foul shots to make it 51-45 and as time wound down tossed in her own rebound to widen the gap to 58-47. Gogowich was a nasty pit bull who chewed up the Rebels defensively with her aggressive play at both ends of the floor.
"Even though we only won it by three it was still a good game," Hucul said.
The Skyhawks are carrying 11 players, including eight returning players. The only starter not back is Stephanie Neumann, who has since graduated.
"After last year we all know what our roles are now," Hucul said. "We definitely still work hard."
Hucul is the tallest player on the team at five-foot-nine.
"Our nemesis will always be size and that's what kept [the Rebels] in the game. We don't get the easy put-backs and it kills us and they got some easy put-backs," Dedrick said. "We're athletic but we've got to get tougher and box people out, otherwise teams will play zone against us and they will just let us shoot and we'll never get a rebound."
The win was the sixth in a row to tip off the season.
"It's been a good start to the year," Dedrick said.
Last weekend the Skyhawks won a tournament in Medicine Hat with victories against Sheldon-Williams Collegiate, a highly ranked team out of Regina, Campbell Collegiate, also of Regina, and in the final crushed the McCoy Colts of Medicine Hat by 30 points.
"We played two really good games. The middle game was like a hiccup, but we still won," Dedrick said.
In the metro Edmonton premier conference the Skyhawks defeated the Archbishop Jordan Scots 75-52 Monday at the Skydome and knocked off the Bev Facey Falcons 84-80 in overtime Wednesday at Sherwood Park. "It was tied at 69 and Andrea Heavener scored the first seven points of overtime. That was the breaking point and they never got close after that," Dedrick said. "We got up as high as nine and at some point in the game they were up by one so it was pretty close throughout. There were seven different players, four from our team and three from their team, that hit three pointers so it was a fairly decently played offensive game. There were a lot of good shots taken."
After the REB tournament the Skyhawks fly to Cuba to train and play with young athletes identified as potential candidates of the Cuba national basketball program. The Skyhawks have collected uniforms, shoes and equipment to give to the players during their stay in Cuba.
"We're there for seven days and five of those days are going to be two-a-day training sessions. These are top-quality kids that we will practice with. We intermingle in the mornings and then we scrimmage in the afternoons so it's a ton of basketball. We're also going to meet their families and do some salsa dancing with the same kids we play against," Dedrick said. "It's also a really good social cultural exchange too. Some places there you can't drink their water. We're bringing our own toilet paper too. St. Albert kids never have to worry about stuff like that right, so from that perspective it's going to be awesome. We're definitely looking forward to it, especially when I hear it's going to be -30 C here."