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McMaster Marauders Hiliary Hanaka runs with a championship banner after her team beat the Laval Rouge 70-58 in the final of the U Sports Canadian women's basketball championship in Toronto, on Sunday, March 10, 2019.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Theresa Burns, McMaster women’s basketball coach of 26 years, kept saying all weekend that this year’s team was special. The players proved it Sunday night, upsetting top-seeded Laval to win the school’s first U Sports women’s basketball national championship.

Behind 18 points each from Sarah Gates and Linnaea Harper, the No.2-seeded Marauders rolled to a 70-58 victory in the gold-medal game and celebrated in a happy pile of hugs after earning the Bronze Baby trophy, as the last team standing at the U Sports Final 8 at Ryerson.

McMaster overcame the tournament favourite, a powerhouse squad from Laval with U Sports player of the year Sarah-Jane Marois, who had 21 points for Laval in the loss.

“It feels like a dream,” said an emotional Harper, a graduating senior, who was named tournament MVP. “I can’t believe we won the national championship.”

There were 1,684 fans inside 2,800-seat Mattamy Athletic Centre for the gold-medal game. Earlier in the day, the No. 4-seeded Ottawa Gee-Gees edged out the No. 3-seeded Saskatchewan Huskies 63-62 in the bronze-medal game, but this game was fuller and much louder.

The crowd inside what used to be Maple Leaf Gardens had large pockets of McMaster supporters who made the trip from nearby Hamilton, dressed in maroon shirts and striped scarves.

Several players from Canada’s national women’s team were sitting courtside, including WNBA stars Natalie Achonwa and Kia Nurse, the latter a Hamilton native there supporting her mom’s alma mater. Young basketball-playing girls rushed to them at half-time for photos and autographs.

Laval was also seeking its first national title after a near-perfect campaign. The Rouge et Or fell just shy of the first undefeated season of its 48-year history, finishing 15-1, and winning an RSEQ title. Laval also boasted the top player in the country in Marois.

Laval had settled for silver in the national final two years against McGill and was back trying again.

McMaster was appearing in its first national championship game. For 29 years, the national semi-final was an obstacle McMaster couldn’t overcome. The Marauders had played in the national semis in 1990 and 2008, but lost on both of those occasions before going on to earn bronze.

“There are some years where you just have a good group and you think, wow, maybe this is the team,” Burns told media after the game, as family, friends, fans and ex-players gathered around her waiting to say their congratulations. “We just knew at the beginning of this year that this team had something different.”

The first quarter was low on offence, but high on defence and tension as the two squads took the floor, each grasping for their school’s first women’s basketball title.

The quarter was riddled with missed shots, and messy turnovers, but also huge blocks and players diving desperately to the floor battling for loose balls. There were heated battles on the glass between the two squads’ rim protectors, Laval’s transfer from the Texas Longhorns, 6-foot-3 Khaléann Caron-Goudreau, and McMaster’s 6-foot-2 forward Olivia Wilson.

Laval shot 22 per cent and McMaster 35.7 per cent in the opening quarter, with the Marauders leading 11-10 at the end.

Back-to-back three-pointers by Claudia Emond finally got Laval going on offence as the first quarter closed.

Then in the second, Marois – who had gone 0-3 from the field in the first quarter – suddenly erupted for Laval. She hit a pair of threes on her way to a 13-point second quarter which propelled the Rouge et Or to its first significant lead of the night.

Both squads were pressing hard on defence, pushing each other to take poor shots on the brink of shot-clock expiration. Laval’s Caron-Goudreau, who had a stunning nine blocked shots in Saturday’s semi-final victory over Ottawa, once again set a menacing tone in the paint. McMaster’s tenacious guard Christina Buttenham delighted the Mac supporters by recording a few blocks of her own.

Laval led 33-27 by halftime.

The Marauders wrestled away the lead mid-way through a third quarter they dominated, largely behind hustle plays and finger-roll buckets by a determined Buttenham, who had seven of her 13 points in a burst at that point.

“I came back from Iowa and I have never enjoyed basketball more than I did this year,” said an elated Buttenham after the game.

Laval shot a concerning 2-for-18 from the field in the third, yet the two teams remained knotted 44-44 going into a tense final quarter.

Just as she had in the quarterfinals versus Acadia and the semifinals against Saskatchewan, Gates came up big for McMaster in the clutch with key buckets.

They had to dig deep and defy the odds as they had all year, finishing second in the OUA with a 21-3 record and beating the Ottawa Gee-Gees for the conference title. The team that had special chemistry all season got it done.

Laval players walked off the floor in disappointment, into the arms of family and friends, many of them crying after a near-perfect season.

As the Marauders received their medals, the crowd serenaded them with a chant of GO MAC GO. As Burns, their veteran coach, received her medal, her players sang out “MVP, MVP.”

So what was it like to come close before, but finally win her first title after 26 years?

“It feels unbelievably amazing,” said Burns, looking down at the gold medal around her neck. “Wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

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