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Thunderbirds outlast Timberwolves 68-66 in back-and-forth battle

It appears the UNBC Timberwolves and UBC Thunderbirds are incapable of playing anything but a down-to-the-wire battle. Saturday in Prince George was no different, with the T-Birds pulling out a 68-66 victory over a game TWolves team looking for the weekend sweep. 

After a 40-minute battle one night prior, it didn’t take long for the two teams to re-establish why Friday evening was so tightly contested. The Thunderbirds were aggressive in the early going, pressuring UNBC all over the court, thwarting the TWolves in the opening minutes. However, the home program did well to settle down, as Rebecca Landry and Alina Shakirova found their way to the hoop for tough buckets. Dina Strujic, Emily Martindale, and Hailey Counsell each made three-pointers for the T-Birds, who found themselves trailing 19-16 after ten minutes. 

In the second quarter, it was more of the same. Traded buckets. Back-and-forth action, with plenty of physicality under each hoop. Despite the gritty battle, only three fouls were called in the frame, so it was tough sledding for both teams. Landry continued to assert herself for the TWolves, and Anastasia Soltes buried both her looks from long range, as UNBC looked to establish a lead. However, a well-balanced UBC attack did well to buoy the T-Birds, with seven players scoring at least four points in the first half. 

When the halftime buzzer sounded, UNBC held a 38-34 lead in front of a supportive Northern Sport Centre crowd. Landry finished the half with 12 points, while Soltes and Alina Shakirova had eight points. Martindale led the Thunderbirds with seven points, as coach Erin McAleenan spread her minutes around. 

“I was trying to get my head in the game. Yesterday was a tough one for me, I couldn’t hit anything,” said Martindale. “Today, I really focused on holding that finish, and being confident in my shot. Not hesitating. Just getting to the rim any chance I could.”

In the third quarter, Kate Johnson came out a woman possessed for the T-Birds. The veteran guard broke down the Timberwolves defense on a number of occasions, getting to her signature midrange jumper, and finding Martindale for a pair of treys, as well draining one of her own. UBC opened the half on a big run, seizing the lead back from the TWolves, and establishing a comfy cushion. The onslaught continued, as there seemed to be a lid on the basket at one end, and the cylinder seemed to grow at the other. UBC won the quarter 21-12, and held a 55-50 lead with ten minutes to go. 

“Coach (Sergey Shchepotkin) was saying we had to go step by step, rather than trying to save the whole game in one possession,” said UNBC’s Lucy Guan. “We just needed to do the simple things, like getting stops on defense. Once we got rolling, the points would start dropping.”

The fourth quarter was another one for the books. Alina Shakirova came alive offensively, making a pair of early three-pointers to claw the TWolves closer, as the two programs traded leads for much of the frame. Freshman guard Sarah Kuklisin injected speed and tenacity, scoring five in the quarter as UNBC held a lead with two minutes to go. Johnson had other ideas. The UBC captain slashed for a tough bucket inside, and then made a dagger three pointer in the final minute, giving the T-Birds the edge.  

“Kate, our point guard does an amazing job keeping us settled and keeping us calm in situations like that,” said Martindale, postgame. “Full credit to her. I am still working on that, as a young player. We definitely have been in these situations multiple times, so I think that helped us out there.”

UNBC did have a final possession, but nothing came of it, as UBC held on for a thrilling 68-66 victory. 

“This was big. We haven’t had a chance to sweep anyone yet,” said Martindale. “Having that split every weekend is getting us closer and closer. This was a big one for us.”

Johnson was the scoring leader for the T-Birds with 18 points, to go along with six rebounds Martindale added 17 points and eight boards, while Dina Strujic had 10 points and nine rebounds. 

For UNBC, Shakirova was the leading scorer with 17 points, as well as eight rebounds and five assists. Landry had 12 points, while Kuklisin added 10 points and five rebounds off the bench. Sveta Boykova hauled in 15 rebounds in the loss. 

“We had a tough third quarter, but I was really proud of how we battled back at the end of the third, and in the fourth,” said Guan. “We put ourselves in a position to compete.”

With the result, the Thunderbirds improve to 3-5 on the campaign, while the TWolves fall to 4-2.  

“We are pretty happy with where we are. Obviously, we would have liked to get this win tonight so we would be in a better position for next weekend and next semester,” said Guan. “But, it’s definitely something to be happy about, to be 4-2.”

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