This is a make or break point in the season for the Memorial Sea-Hawks women’s basketball team which resumes its schedule this weekend minus its best player and top scorer, Sydney Stewart.
Coming off a bye week, the Lady Birds are back on the floor Saturday and Sunday at home in a huge series with the Acadia Axewomen.
It’s not bad enough that Acadia rolls into the Field House with an 11-1 record, but Sea-Hawks coach Mark English has to look down his bench and see his all-star guard, Stewart, sitting there in street clothes and crutches nearby.
That’s because Stewart sprained her ankle two weeks ago in Halifax against the Dalhousie Tigers. She expects to be out for a couple or three weeks, but English hopes to have her back before the regular season winds up Feb. 24.
“It’s not a crazy serious injury,” English said. “She’ll be back before playoffs. Stewie’s a tough kid, and she doesn’t want to miss games. But we don’t want to rush her back. Championships are won in March.”
Point taken, but Stewart was the fifth-leading scorer in the Atlantic University Sport conference at the time of her injury, with 16 points-per-game.
That’s a bit of offence to make up.
In the first game following Stewart’s injury, a Saturday afternoon matinee against Dal, English acknowledged “challenging” a couple of players to step up and help fill the void left with Stewart’s absence.
“Haille was certainly one of them,” English said of his players who answered the call.
The coach is speaking about Haille Nickerson, a 20-year-old, third-year guard from Grimsby, Ont., 10 minutes down the road from Hamilton.
Nickerson drained a season- and career-high 25 points as the Sea-Hawks beat the Tigers 76-65 to salvage a split.
MUN, 7-5, enters this weekend’s series tied for third place in the standings with UPEI, with 18 points apiece. Cape Breton and Saint Mary’s, with 20 points, are tied for second place, behind Acadia.
“She hadn’t been shooting particularly well from the field,” English said of Nickerson, “but she barely misses in practice.
“I think it was a case of some mental focus on her part, and letting her that I know that I believe in her. She went out and got it done.”
Nickerson was recruited by UPEI when English was coaching the Panthers. When he took over the MUN program, his Ontario recruit followed him to Newfoundland.
Like most rookies, Nickerson didn’t see a lot of playing time initially. Her minutes increased in Year 2, and this year she is averaging 17.3 minutes per game and nine points.
“She’s always been a great player, but you know how it is in university basketball, age comes into play with some kids that might be ahead of you in terms of experience,” English said.
For her part, Nickerson is ready to shoulder a bigger load when it comes to the Sea-Hawks’ offence.
She certainly got off to as good start against Dal, going 11-for-17 from the field, including one three-pointer.
“I felt way more mentally focused in that game,” she said, “and I think that was the best warmup I’ve had all season. It’s all about having confidence and making shots.”
Of course, Nickerson isn’t the only Sea-Hawk English is counting on while Stewart is on the shelf. Fourth-year forward Brooklyn Wright from Cambridge, Ont., is 10th in conference scoring with 12.6 points per game and Lindsay Taylor, a fifth-year guard from Waterloo, Ont., is 20th in the AUS with 9.5 points per game, just ahead of Nickerson.
“We have any number of girls to step up and be our leading scorer,” English said.
This weekend’s games are scheduled for 6 p.m. Saturday and noon Sunday.
The surprising Memorial men’s basketball squad also has a tough series ahead of them this weekend with Acadia coming to town.
The Axemen are 10-2 and second in the AUS, just behind 11-2 Dalhousie.
The Sea-Hawks lost twice to the Tigers two weeks ago (like the women’s team, Memorial is coming off a bye week), but one game was by seven points, and the rematch went to overtime.
Not bad considering the Tigers are the three-time defending conference champs, and last year’s USports national bronze medallists.
Despite their 4-8 record, the Sea-Hawks sit alone in the sixth and final playoff spot in the AUS with 14 points. Seventh-place Cape Breton has four points and UPEI is winless in 12 games.
Daniel Gordon, a fifth-year guard from North York, Ont., leads the team with 18.8 points per game, fifth in the AUS. Teammate Nathan Barker of Massey Drive, NL is averaging 17.9 points, seventh overall in the conference.
The Sea-Hawks and Axemen meet 8 o’clock Saturday night, and 2 p.m. Sunday.