Cassie Cooke (14) is leading the CIS in scoring in her first season with the Brandon University Bobcats women’s basketball team. (FILE PHOTO)
The Brandon University Bobcats women’s basketball team took a much-needed step forward in the first semester of the Canada West season by snapping a losing streak that lasted 73 games and included the entire last three seasons.
The team won back-to-back road games for the first time in a decade and has a 2-8 record at the Christmas break. It’s with them that we finish off the mid-term reports.
Bobcats head coach Novell Thomas brought in two new recruits for this season in shooting guard Cassie Cooke and point guard Aleah Bridges and both have made a major impact. Cooke, a former all-Canadian, has given the Bobcats a legitimate offensive threat and leads the nation by averaging 28.2 points per game. She also broke Canada West records for most field goal attempts (37) and three-point attempts in a game (21) and tied the record for most three-pointers made in a game (nine).
However, it’s her and Bridges’ ability to handle the ball and create plays that stands out the most. Because Brandon has two players who can move the ball up the court, the team has seen a lot less pressure and it has resulted the Bobcats committing a conference-low 17.4 turnovers per game. The Bobcats’ lowest turnover average for a season was 19 in 2003-04, when they went 4-16.
Cooke, Bridges and improved play from returning players like Kaela Cranston have helped the Bobcats average 61.6 points per game, their highest total since the team put up 63.5 in 2003-04. Having been outscored by an average of 12.2 points per game, their current point differential is their lowest since that season as well, when they were outscored by an average of 9.6.
Limiting turnovers has been a focal point for Thomas since he arrived in Brandon last season, and it’s something he still feels the team can continue to improve on.
"That’s one of our game goals, to make sure that our turnovers are down, and if we continue down that path I think we can get even lower if we eliminate some of the mistakes we see ourselves doing from looking at film," he said.
While the Bobcats have made some key improvements, they aren’t a very deep team. Cooke and Bridges are averaging 37.4 and 36.9 minutes of playing time, respectively, and Cranston and Stephanie Haynes aren’t far off that pace, at 35.3 and 34.5 minutes apiece. Brandon is an injury to one of those players away from having to rely a lot more on the three rookie guards on the roster.
Balance in shots is a bit of an issue as well as Cooke has taken 35 per cent of the team’s field goal attempts, but she makes 42.1 per cent of them compared to 24.7 per cent by the rest of the team. The team also struggles from the free throw line. Without Cooke’s numbers, the squad makes only 50.7 per cent of its shots from the charity stripe.
The post is another area of weakness. Fifth-year forward Jaynell Gillett has missed half of Brandon’s games with a nagging hip injury, which has meant a lot more playing time for young players like second-year Ambrea McDonald-Okoro, as well as a trio of rookies in Brandonite Stephanie Hunter, Kinsley Ransom from Boissevain and Amy Williams. While that area is a weakness right now, Thomas believes there’s a lot of potential in that young group.
"I love the work ethic of our newcomers," he said. "They’re itching to get into the gym. … There’s a few of them that really want to get better and be contributors.
"Stephanie Hunter is one of those individuals who is like a gym rat and you see her in there and improving, and that excites me as a coach because it means she’s in here for the right reasons and that she will become a contributor sooner rather than later."
Thomas refused to call the first semester a massive improvement as he felt his team could have had at least four wins, however, he has higher hopes for the second half, which begins on Jan. 10 when the Bobcats host the Thompson Rivers WolfPack.
Although the Bobcats have games remaining against the fifth-ranked Regina Cougars and the seventh-ranked Fraser Valley Cascades, eight of their other nine contests in the second semester are against teams that currently have losing records, including a pair at home against the Manitoba Bisons, who were beaten by Brandon in the pre-season.
Thomas feels there’s a lot of games that can potentially be won, and he thinks it will be a good second half of the season if his players can stay healthy and continue to play well.
"I think I’ve said it many times before, but as long as we play as a team and compete, I think there are plenty of wins out there," he said. "We can’t look past any teams; we’re not that good yet, and every game is going to be a battle, but I think there are many winnable games out there."
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition December 20, 2013