Clara Gascoigne’s defensive dominance on the court paces SMU’s national medal chances

By admin Dec13,2023

For one quarter of the semifinal game between Saint Mary’s University (SMU) and the Carleton Ravens at the 2023 U Sports Women’s Final 8 Basketball Tournament in Sydney, N.S., everything was going to plan for the Huskies.

Deadlocked at 13 with the No. 1 team in the nation, SMU Head Coach Scott Munro had his team going toe-to-toe in a defensive battle with the eventual champion Ravens, with Atlantic University Sport (AUS) defensive player of the year Clara Gascoigne at the forefront of that strategy.

However, the Dartmouth, N.S., native – who had been glued to Carleton star Kali Pocrnic — went down awkwardly early in the second quarter while tracking the lightning-quick guard across the court, injuring her ankle and ending her superlative season.

“We hadn’t really played without [Gascoigne] for any stretch during the year, and it’s the first time we had to do it,” Munro said. “I think we were trying not to be deflated … but obviously, when you take her out… everyone was a bit deflated … Both offensively and defensively … it limited us.”

The Ravens went on to defeat the Huskies 65-46 before dispatching Queen’s in the title game, with Pocrnic pouring in 37 points across the final two games to capture tournament MVP honours.

While the Huskies bowed out in the bronze-medal game to the University of Alberta — whose forward Claire Signatovich edged out Gascoigne for national defensive player of the year honours — a trip back to the Final 8 may very well be on the table this year for the 6-2 Huskies, ranked as the top AUS team and No. 7 nationally.

There will be plenty more opportunity for the six-foot guard — averaging even better defensive numbers this season at 1.9 steals and 1.1 blocks per game — to draw the toughest assignments on the floor, even if that happens to be mirroring a five-foot-three guard like Pocrnic at nationals again.

“[If I get tasked with guarding] those fast, shifty point guards, I’m just like, ‘Okay, here we go,'” said Gascoigne with a laugh. “Sometimes when I go to guard them, I just feel funny because I’m so much taller … But I’ll do whatever I need to do.”

Clara Gascoigne (8) of the Huskies in action against StFX, utilizing her reach against an opponent. (Mona Ghiz/SMU Huskies/File)

Whether it’s a do-or-die game at the nationals, or a regular-season AUS game, Munro has had no problem utilizing the well-rounded Gascoigne to limit the opposition’s best scorer, a strategy he has been using since her first season in 2019-20.

“Every night, each team brings a different challenge,” said Munro of his guard who is no slouch offensively either. “We’re fortunate that with Clara on our team she can guard positions one through four very well … We usually try to identify the best scorer on the other team [to put Clara on].”

2023 playoff gauntlet

Those individual matchups are heightened during the playoffs, with Gascoigne being presented with two very different challenges en route to Saint Mary’s 2023 AUS title in the form of two AUS first-team all-stars.

In a 67-60 semifinal win over the University of Prince Edward Island, Gascoigne matched up with lengthy five-foot-ten guard Lauren Rainford, who finished fourth in scoring in the AUS, but was limited to shooting 4-for-22 from the field in her playoff matchup with the Huskies.

“[Rainford] is very challenging to guard because she can shoot it, likes to drive, and she has a good spin move,” said Gascoigne, who had an astounding five steals and five blocks in the contest. “I’ve been guarding her for a while now, so I feel like sometimes I’ve gotten good at reading the players I’ve been guarding for four years.

“That being said, she’s still very good and can score on me. But I also have my teammates [to lend] help, so it’s trying to just not let her shoot the ball and hope my teammates have my back when she drives, which they usually do.”

From there, Gascoigne drew five-foot-six fifth-year guard Haley McDonald, who was coming off a season in which she averaged 22.5 points per game — tied for second in the nation — earning her AUS MVP honours as well as finishing as a finalist for the Nan Copp Trophy, awarded to the most outstanding player in the country.

McDonald was limited to five points in the AUS final on 2-for-10 shooting, as Saint Mary’s earned its first AUS title since 2016 with a 68-56 win.

A women's basketball team gathers to pose for a picture behind a large trophy.
Clara Gascoigne (8) poses with teammates after defeating Acadia 68-56 in the AUS championship game in February. (Nick Pearce/SMU Huskies/File)

“[McDonald] is very fast and shifty with the ball, so it’s a challenge to stay in front of her,” said Gascoigne, who also impacted the game on the offensive end with 15 points and six assists. “The main thing is she could shoot the lights out, so it’s making sure she can’t shoot by really driving her off the line … to not let her have those open shots because she will hit those.”

While locking in on the opposition’s top scorer is always a standout element for Gascoigne, Munro credits the guard’s measured approach when she’s not locking in on one player — as was the case in a 70-68 quarterfinal victory over the University of Calgary at nationals.

“When [Gascoigne] doesn’t have to necessarily lock onto one player, that’s when she can really anticipate things and get in passing lanes and get some steals,” Munro said. “She can be a little more free-ranging defensively, take a few chances, and play to her instincts.”

On a veteran squad led offensively by star fifth-year guard Alaina McMillan and the defensive conscience of Gascoigne, the Huskies will once again be a factor in both the AUS and the national stage heading into the new year.

Around the U Sports world:

  • The Ottawa women’s basketball team went into the break on a nine-game winning streak after dealing Carleton its first loss of the season, 74-56, on Wednesday. The Ottawa men’s team also topped Carleton 79-78 on Wednesday to extend its perfect record to 10-0.
  • Calgary’s Riley Stotts and national leading goal-scorer Simon Lafrance of UQTR scored for the U Sports men’s hockey all-stars in a 4-2 loss to the Canadian world junior hopefuls. Matthew Wood and Jake Furlong scored two goals apiece for Canada. The two-game series in Oakville, Ont., will wrap up on Wednesday at 11:55 a.m. ET.

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