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Thunderbirds' tall trees pose canopy challenge for UNBC

Skakirova continues to lead Canada West in scoring; T-wolves returning to basketball court after three-week break
04 UNBC women's hoops Sarah Kuklisin
UNBC rookie guard Sarah Kuklisin dribbles the ball against the Fraser Valley Cascades in a U SPORTS Canada West game Oct. 30 in Abbotsford.

In basketball, where the target in 10 feet off the ground, being small is a disadvantage.

The UNBC Timberwolves women’s team knows all about that natural phenomenon. They’re one of the shortest teams in the Canada West Conference but haven’t used that as an excuse. In fact, they’re thriving in the face of their vertical challenges.

The T-wolves (3-1) have won three of their first four games this season but they’ll have a tall order on their hands starting Friday night (6 p.m.) when they host the UBC Thunderbirds in the first of a two-game weekend set at the Northern Sport Centre.

The T-birds (2-4) are better than their record indicates. They lost by just four points to the division-leading Fraser Valley Cascades and beat them in the rematch and were one-point losers to UBC-Okanagan two weeks ago.

Of UBC’s starting five, five-foot-six guard Kate Johnson is the only one who stands lower than five-foot-10, and they have five other six-footers besides second-year centre Olivia Morgan Churchas, who bends the tape measure at six-foot-six.

“They are a really good team,” said UNBC guard Anastasia Soltes. “We are small this year, and they are big, so that may cause some difficulty for us. We have been doing a lot of work in practice, with the smalls working with the bigs, just to get used to that potential mismatch on the court.

“I think we have a good shot of beating them.” 

Soltes knew going into the season her team was not blessed and any natural dunkers and she’s pleased with how well the T-wolves have done so far. They’re coming off a two-game sweep of the Thompson River University WolfPack, Nov. 5-6.

“It was a bit iffy this year, with how small we were,” said Soltes. “We definitely are at a disadvantage. It is nice to see we have the potential to do well, and we shouldn’t feel as much like the underdogs. We have a shot at beating every team.”

UNBC forward Alina Skakirova continues to lead the conference, averaging 24.5 points per game and she has the second-ranked rebounder in Canada West, Sveta Boykova, helping her raise those point totals. In those four games, Boykova has averaged 14 rebounds. For the T-birds, Hailey Counsell has averaged 16 points, while Johnson raised her scoring average to 15 per game after a 29-point effort two weeks ago against UBC-O.

T-wolves coach Sergey Shchepotkin is a bit concerned about how his team will respond after nearly three weeks between games. If they come out rusty and fail to take advantage of their speed, chances are they’ll get buried by their opponents tonight. None of the teams played last weekend, but the T-wolves were the only team to have two oen weekends.

“When the season starts it’s difficult to have that break and I wish we didn’t have that break,” said Shchepotkin. “For me as a coach, it’s pretty difficult to keep the team at the peak of their performance. I would prefer we play a game and get in that routine and right now I’m not really sure what’s going to work.

“UBC has a big name, so they’re always a good team,” he said. “They’ve had some changes and have a new coach (Erin McAleenan) and she changed the roster, but they’re good. They have a pretty good core of experienced players and a lot of talented first-year players from Ontario.

UNBC guard Sarah Kuklisin has made an impact in her inaugural Canada West season with her quick feet and lighting reflexes and her 3.3 steal average is tops in the conference. She’s also been accurate with her shots, finding the range 57 per cent of the time from the field, fourth-best in the league.

“That’s no surprise, it was expected from her and I’m happy about that,” said Shchepotkin. “She’s a good player.

“I think we are doing well. We hope that our leaders show their game and we have expectations from our young players as well. Our team is so young so there is always a lot of work to do.”

The same teams meet again Saturday at the NSC.