Photo: Chris Blanchette

Conquering the court: the rise of the women’s basketball team

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By Chris Blanchette

Keneca Pingue-Giles raises her hands while falling on a slant to the left corner. With a flick of the wrist she sends the ball arching above the defender in front of her. The buzzer blares inside of the Mattamy Athletic Centre (MAC) and the rattle of the Ryerson student section — draped in blue and gold — falls silent, collectively holding its breath while the ball floats through the air.

The rim absorbs the impact of the ball as it falls short of going in.

The red and yellow lights of the Coca-Cola court scoreboard read 76-73 in favour of the visiting University of Ottawa Gee-Gees. Pingue-Giles and the rest of the Rams roster walk to the locker room, past the opponents howling in celebration near the massive Ryerson logo at center court.

For the third time in the 2015-2016 regular season and what seems like the thousandth time in program history, the Rams feel the familiar sting of defeat.

Two consecutive appearances at the CIS championships and the leadership of Pingue-Giles brought the Rams just shy — exactly one win — of being the best damn team in Canada.

There is no way to put it nicely — the Ryerson women’s basketball team has been historically bad or average for 20 years. At the start of this season, the rafters in the MAC were bare, patiently waiting for a banner as they did when the team first named Coca-Cola court home in 2012.

But in the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 seasons, that all changed. Two consecutive appearances at the CIS championships and the leadership of Pingue-Giles brought the Rams just shy — exactly one win — of being the best damn team in Canada.

The Rams are fronted by an incredibly efficient offense. In the OUA regular season they ranked first in five shooting categories including points, points-per-game and field goal percentage. The offense flows through Pingue-Giles, who is able to suck teams’ defenses into the middle of the key, allowing players like Mariah Nunes and Siki Jez to capitalize on open shots from mid range. Though they are poor from behind the 3-point line, they score the ball in a multitude of other ways and are able to capitalize on second chances — they’re  the best offensive rebounding team in Ontario.

But the real secret to the women’s success lies in their defense. They ranked second in defensive rebounding, first in total rebounds, and fifth in blocks-per-game, thanks to a six-foot-four Sofia Paska who emerged as one of the most improved players on the team this season. They also finished first in steals, a sign of the strong guard play from point guards McKenzie Sigurdson, Cara Tiemens and Pingue-Giles.

Fifth-year senior Pingue-Giles’ career at Ryerson has been extraordinary. Crowned OUA and CIS Player of the Year, and widely applauded by the university for her leadership and academic skills, the five-foot-seven guard has become the face of the program — a massive white-and-gold banner of her greets everyone who walks through the doors of the MAC.

Success is relatively new to the program. Ryerson has won more regular season games in the last two years than during all of 2011 to 2014. Given the history behind the program, it’s no surprise. The minor success that the Rams found during the 2001-2002 campaign was short lived — season after season rolled by, each ending with a sub .500 win-loss record. A few years later, in 2006-2007, they had the second worst season in program history — a horrific 2-20 record.

Once long-time head coach Sandy Pothier gave up the reigns, Ryerson transitioned through two more coaches. The first, Charles Kissi, took over as interim head coach from 2010-2012 and was responsible for recruiting Pingue-Giles and Siki Jez, both vital members of this year’s team.

“When I got here I didn’t know what to expect,” admits Pingue-Giles, though in her first year the team finished with an 11-11 record and made it past the first round of playoffs. “When I first arrived here, Kissi recruited me. He told me that he thought this team could be the first team to win a national championship.”

Hired to continue and fulfill Kissi’s legacy, second and current head coach Carly Clarke would go on to coach the Rams in back-to-back CIS championship runs. With the success of this season, she has helped cement Ryerson as a national powerhouse. “It’s so exciting to be a part of it. The university, the administration, the athletic department, everybody has put everything in place for our student athletes to be successful and I’m really lucky to be part of that,” says Clarke.

In the last minutes of the fourth quarter of the OUA Finals, going up against the Ottawa Gee-Gees, Ryerson knocks down shots and gains a seven-point lead, forcing Ottawa to foul in an attempt to draw out the match. So Pingue-Giles is sent to the line, with a chance to seal the game. Her first foul shot is good, and as she approaches the line one more time she takes in a deep breath, and calmly drains her second — giving the Rams a nine-point lead.

Thanks to a victory over Windsor in the semi-finals, the Rams have their shot to take down the group with home-court advantage, and the team that last beat them — the University of Ottawa.

“We’ve had a chalkboard with a couple of teams’ names written on it that we fell to earlier in the season and we’ve crossed most of them off,” says Clarke.

Ottawa goes on to make a last second three to bring them within two possessions, but Ryerson inbounds the ball to Pingue-Giles, who manages to avoid defenders on way to the opposite side of half. As time expires in the fourth quarter, she crosses the half court line and throws the ball in the air — this time not in a last ditch effort to tie the game but in excitement — while her teammates storm the court to celebrate their 66-60 win. They’ve just clinched a 12-game winning streak.

“Have you heard the Drake song Summer Sixteen?” Pingue-Giles says, singing a brief part of the song and laughing. “That song was the anthem for our game against Ottawa and we were definitely looking for revenge.”

The Rams’ revenge tour rolls into Fredericton next, fresh off of their OUA championship and looking to capture the ultimate prize — a CIS Finals victory, branding them as the best team in Canada. In their first game, Ryerson takes down the University of Regina, then overcomes the number-one-ranked McGill University in the semifinals and punches their ticket to the finals against the Saskatchewan Huskies. It’s so close, they can taste it. After an intense first half on Sunday, March 20, the Rams find themselves trailing 42-40. Unfortunately for Ryerson, they face a Huskies team that’s having their best game of the season at the right time — Saskatchewan shoots an unbelievable three-ball in the third quarter and gains an insurmountable lead.

Soon enough, Clarke calls a desperate timeout with under thirty seconds left in the game.  Surrounded by her players, she makes one last attempt to rally them.  But despite 26 points from Pingue-Giles in her last game as a Ryerson Ram, the team falls one victory shy of becoming national champions.

“We lost first, but we won second and they’ve come so far and are deserving. Hopefully [they] are proud to wear the silver medal.”

While the Huskies celebrate with the championship banner and cup, Clarke slowly walks across the gym inside the Richard J. Currie Centre. Her face is stern, trying to hide memories of the last four years that are clearly weighing on her. As she begins to speak during the media scrum, the stern expression lifts from her face and her voice begins to quiver. “It’s hard,” she says.

Clarke pauses momentarily. Throughout her tenure at Ryerson she has been calm in both victory and defeat. But on that afternoon, the entirety of a spectacular season and the wave of memories seem to catch up to her. “I’m definitely emotional about it because I’m so proud of these kids,” she says. “They’ve just worked so hard. You know, we lost first, but we won second and they’ve come so far and are deserving. Hopefully [they] are proud to wear the silver medal.”

The players don their medals in front of a backdrop of die-hard Ryerson fans, who made the trip all the way to Fredericton to watch their team. “Everyone is so invested in us [and] what we were able to do. The city itself, Toronto, the school, the community — it’s amazing,” says Jez, another fifth-year senior who entered the program along with Pingue-Giles.

A few years ago, the team struggled to fill the stands at home games; this year the attendance at home ranks second in the OUA. Fans from Ryerson’s own “Ram Pack” traveled across the country to watch the women try to make school history, something that seemed unfathomable just four years ago when Clarke took over.

Even the city of Toronto has taken notice of the Rams’ success. Toronto City Hall stood as the focal point of Nathan Phillips Square, illuminated in bright blue and gold lights for a night as a sign of support for the Ryerson basketball teams this season.

“It just goes to show the pride that Ryerson has. A lot of people think we’re a commuter school that doesn’t care. But all of those displays prove that the stereotypes aren’t true,” says Pingue-Giles.

The Rams stand shoulder-to-shoulder, draped in CIS silver medals for the first time in program history. Players stare at the cameras quietly, some battling back tears, others smiling while they stand with their arms over one another. As fans chant player names through the presentation of the trophy to the opposing team, it suddenly becomes clear that the Rams never needed to win gold.

“This is the best finish in Ryerson history, so at least that’s something we can take with us and leave a legacy,” says Pingue-Giles in her last media scrum as a Ryerson Ram.

That OUA championship banner will look impressive hanging over home court, and this team has left behind something for future teams to build on. The Ryerson women’s basketball team has a reputation for winning now. Through their incredible season, they made this campus and an entire city care about women’s basketball. If a Ryerson women’s team ever lifts the CIS trophy — whether it’s in the next season or after a number of years — they will remember this team as the one that started it all.

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