When the UNBC Timberwolves needed her most, Emily Holmes delivered.
Friday night in Lethbridge, the five-foot-three dynamo came up with two clutch free throws with 15 seconds on the clock to force a second overtime period and with the game hanging in the balance, the fifth-year point guard hit two three-point shots to send the T-wolves on their way to the second round of the U Sports Canada West women's basketball playoffs.
Lethbridge Pronghorns guard Amy Mazutinec had just sunk a three-pointer with 1:16 left in the second overtime to even the score at 85 when Holmes got the ball and launched a bomb that found nothing but net. On the the next play, Holmes stole the ball from fifth-year guard Katie Keith, drew the foul and made good on both foul shots for a 90-85 lead and the T-wolves put the final touches on a 93-85 come-from-behind victory.
"It was very exciting, a bit stressful, but with the outcome and everything I couldn't be more proud of my team for fighting for that win and not giving up at any point. It's an amazing feeling and it was an amazing game to be a part of."
A text message Holmes received just before the game from a friend provided prophetic inspiration to the graduating senior.
"It said, 'Shoot the ball like it's your last game until it is or it isn't,'" Holmes said. "I didn't have a whole lot of shooting opportunities before that and I did in overtime and I shot like it was my last game until it wasn't.
Down to just six healthy players, the T-wolves extended their winning streak to nine games and they continue to baffle Canada West opponents with their ability to stay aggressive in the passing lanes and underneath the nets without taking fouls. They were disciplined defence because they had to be while the Pronghorns piled up their own personal fouls, putting the T-wolves into bonus shooting situations, which made a difference. The T-wolves shot 26-for-33 from the foul line while Lethbridge was good on six of just eight attempts.
Just one T-wolf, forward Emma vanBruinessen, got into foul trouble Friday but didn't reach her fourth until the second overtime was half over. She went on to deliver a monster 14-point, 15-rebound performance.
Maria Mongomo and Madison Landry, who finished first and third respectively in the Canada West scoring race, delivered the goods once again for UNBC. Landry racked up 30 points, 22 after the first half, and had 11 rebounds. Mongomo collected 22 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and five steals.
"I told the girls after the game there's just one huge feeling of pride, what they did," said T-wolves head coach Sergey Shchepotkin. "We were two times down almost 15 points and just went through it, it was a great game.
"It wasn't Emily's best game, like everyone. I cannot say that Maria played all game very good, or Maddy (Landry) played all game very good. But I'm happy in that critical moment all the leaders stood up for the team and they did a great job."
Kacie Bosch led Lethbridge with 21 points, 12 rebounds and five assists. Mazutinec shot 19 points and had seven rebounds and Asnate Fomina collected 18 points and had eight assists.
Both teams finished the season with 11-9 records and the score was a true indicator of how closely-matched they were.
The T-wolves had a chance to end it in regulation. Leading 70-68, Jessica Zarowny fouled vanBruinessen with 26 seconds left, but the UNBC forward missed on both foul shots. The Pronghorns drove the ball down the floor and Bosch scored to make it 70-70.
With seven seconds left, after a UNBC timeout, Mongomo took the inbound pass from Landry, who drove to the net. Mongomo got the pass in deep to Landry who had two shot attempts with bodies draped all over her but couldn't get the ball to drop, forcing OT.
Down by two in the first five-minute overtime period, Holmes got fouled with 15 seconds left and hit two pressure-packed free throws to tie it 78-78. The Pronghorns missed their shot after a timeout and with 6.7 seconds left, Katie Keith inexplicably fouled Mongomo in UNBC territory, bringing the leading scorer in the league to the foul line with a chance to ice it. But Mongomo missed both shots and the game was headed for double-overtime.
Holmes set the tone early in the second OT when she hit a triple right after Landry kicked off the quarter showing her 14-for-15 accuracy from the foul line. Zarowny then made it a one-point game but Mongomo answered with her 22nd point of the game off a steal, setting stage for the late-game dramatics which decided it.
"The free throws, I've been in that situation before in high school (playing for Duchess Park) and I've had that experience a bit in university and just stuck with my routine, took a deep breath and tried to block out the noisy crowd and just focused on scoring those free throws," said Holmes.
"Those threes, I was open, those were really good kicks from my teammates. They were really keying on our stronger scorers so sometimes you've got too step up. Those threes made a big difference and fueled us a bit defensively and credit to my teammates for just encouraging me and getting me the ball."
The Timberwolves fell victim to the Pronghorns' long-range attack early in the game. Lethbridge hit five of six shots from outside the circle and led 21-11 when Shchepotkin called a time out. The T-wolves came out of the huddle and Mongomo got them going again with a steal and a layup. She then hit for a triple and Rebecca Landry followed suit with another trey. The UNBC defence continued to force turnovers and vanBruinessen took advantage of a Mongomo block for an easy bucket off the glass. The 7-0 run cut the gap to 21-18 after one quarter.
In the second quarter the Pronghorns continued to hit threes while stifling the UNBC offence. Fomina hit back-to-back triples and after a Bosch layup, Lethbridge shooter Isabel Rattai sunk another long shot. The Pronghorns led 43-30 at the half their largest lead of the game.
"At half-time our coach brought us in and said we just need to change our attitude and be more positive and encouraging of each other and that's what we did," said Holmes. "We came out and kept crawling back and kept fighting for it. We just dismissed the score a bit and focused on our strengths and our game and how we wanted to stop them on defence.
UNBC tightened up defensively in the second half and outscored Lethbridge 40-27. The T-wolves trailed 58-50 heading into the final 10 minutes of regulation time.
"We just made some adjustments from our man defence and switched more frequently from man to zone," said Holmes. "They were shooting well, so we just started to pick them up a bit tighter and just tracking those players more aggressively and keying on them when they were in our zone. Everyone was talking a lot more and communicating where their shooters were and just closing in on them."