Bennett’s Breakdown: Winning Culture

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Windsor’s Korissa Williams / Photo credit Steven Kriemadis

Jan 22, 2015

By Donnovan Bennett – Sportsnet TV Personality

Follow Donnovan on Twitter: @donnovanbennett

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It’s a mantra we often hear in sports. For the 2014-15 University of Windsor women’s basketball team, it’s more like what used to kill you reveals how strong you’ve become.

Headlines were made after the Lancers’ recent loss – their first of the season – with speculation that it’s the first of more to come. The hope was that it’s a sign of a chink in the Lancer armour that’s been built of national titles and Bronze Baby trophies over the last four-plus years.

It’s not what they’ve lost but who they’ve lost that’s especially problematic – arguably the game’s most dominant duo and greatest winners in modern-day CIS women’s basketball, Jessica Clemençon and Miah-Marie Langlois, who were both twice named Windsor female athletes of the year. They’ve both moved on to greener pastures. Langlois is the sole CIS player on the Canada’s women’s senior national team, while Clemençon is flourishing as a pro in France.

Nobody feels that loss more acutely than the woman who is tasked with finding their replacement, Windsor head coach Chantal Vallée. “Those girls turned the program around. They were both captains and our best scorers,” she said. “The void they left is enormous – both on the court with their skill but off the court with their ability as well.”

Clemençon graduated as Windsor’s all-time leading scorer, a five-time OUA all-star and three-time all-Canadian, a Nan Copp Award winner as CIS women’s basketball player of the year, as well as a BLG Award winner as the top female university athlete in Canada. She was also named MVP of the CIS championship game on three occasions, including in 2014.

Langlois was the CIS defensive player of the year in each of her last three university seasons and was selected to the second all-Canadian team last winter after leading the county in steals and averaging 15 points, five rebounds and four assists. A year ago, she became the first player in CIS basketball history – female or male – to be named MVP of the national tournament for the third time.

Big Adidas shoes to fill for the lady Lancers, but so far this season they’ve been “all in”.

The cupboard is far from bare as a pair of fifth-year players have picked up the slack. Korissa Williams, MVP of the 2013 national championship, now steps out of the shadow of her backcourt mate and best friend Langlois, averaging just under 20 points per game on over 60% shooting from the field. Fellow fifth-year senior Jocelyn LaRocque, who was a winner before she even got to Windsor, claiming an OFSAA gold medal at St. Anne’s High School in Tecumseth, has added leadership to a relatively young team.

“These fifth years have never lost. They know what it takes to win nationals. I told the team the last time I addressed them they have an incredible opportunity. It’s not long before nationals, something like 50 days,” Vallée said. “Everything they want is right in front of them for this last sprint to the national championship. I hope that raises the bar.”

If they are able to sweep the CIS nationals having won the title every year they were in school, they’ll reach a historic bar that may never again be matched. Laurentian, from 1975 to 1979, was the only school to capture five straight Bronze Baby trophies.

The Lancers’ recent slip up to Laurier set off alarm bells that the loss of their go-to girls during their recent reign might be too much to overcome. The loss to Laurier marks Windsor’s first setback at home since the 2010 season opener, the first official game ever played by the current crop of fifth-year seniors.

Vallée took a different stance on the loss. The seven-point Laurier defeat was an affirmation that they have gained the fighting spirit to overcome the skill they lost, something they may not have had in previous years.

Vallée explains, “I learned my team has a lot of grit. In the past, when we lost games, it was blowouts. I remember losing to Ottawa by 50 in 2012. Because we were so used to winning when we did lose we’d get blown out because we’d get down and not know how to react and submit. This team refuses to be like that. It was very different, that grit, it’s uncanny. That is the first time we’ve seen it here to that level.”

That loss to the Gee-Gees in the OUA title match was actually by 49, but the point is well taken. The 11 losses they’ve suffered during their national title run have been by an average of 14 points. Three of those losses were by 20 or more points.

The fact that the 2014-2015 incarnation of the Lancers wouldn’t back down wasn’t new to the coaching staff. They saw it in the pre-season trip to Cuba where games and practices against the Cuban national team proved tough but beneficial.

“We were looking for exposure for our international level players. It’s the second time in a row we’ve done this, last year it was Argentina, this year it was Cuba. It’s a time for us to compete as a team. At the same time, I love culture. I love languages. It’s a chance for the girls to learn about each other and others,” Vallée said. “When we hung out with the Cuban national team, we learn their training practices, we get experiences like training on outside courts, and at the same time seeing the lifestyle, learning to dance salsa and going on history lessons. We learned as a team and we grew as a team. The girls noticed that some people have it harder than us and they and make it work”.

That added ingenuity. That added fight. Whether it comes from the exploration of a third world country, or the camaraderie of shared experiences abroad, the new generation of Lancers certainly have it harder but are making it work. After all, they only have one loss. The fact that the Lancers are in rhythm and in unison is what gives them confidence that they can cha cha into the championship.

When talking about the team, Coach Vallée sounds like a proud parent, “I’m incredibly impressed with how these girls have stepped up. It’s a sign of the amazing culture we have here. These girls have been looking up to them on the bench all these years and now it’s their turn and they haven’t backed down,” she said. “It shows me, it shows everybody the culture is not about one or two players. Everybody thought we were going down this year. These girls are fighters.”

They may be down but they’re certainly not out.

Follow Donnovan on Twitter: @donnovanbennett

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