The Western Mustangs women's basketball team have had an up-and-down season so far.
A 3–1 start was followed by a 5–7 stretch, and as the Mustangs sit at 8–8 and fifth in the Ontario University Athletics West Division, they've struggled to find solid footing as the season moves closer to February.
On Saturday, the McMaster Marauders came to Alumni Hall looking to extend their winning streak to six games, and while they did just that with an 83–80 win over the Mustangs, Western University's team also did something valuable.
Or, more accurately, they learned something valuable. They learned that refusing to wilt in the face of a deficit gives them a chance to win games. As they came back time and time again against the Marauders, before ultimately falling short, they showed that they have the potential to gain traction heading into this season's most important stretch.
"The resilience was fantastic. Two weeks ago, we talked about having no excuses and we've really started to live up to that," said Mustangs head coach Brian Cheng. "Walking the talk is always hard, and I'm proud of our players today. A few more bounces our way and we'd be looking at a victory."
The Mustangs came out swinging in the first quarter, holding a 19–18 lead. Mackenzie Puklicz was the dominant presence the Mustangs needed to keep the game competitive, as she followed up her 18 point performance in a win over the University of Guelph on Wednesday with a 28 point outburst on Saturday.
It was Puklicz who ran the fast break and stepped up defensively with three steals. But if Puklicz was the Mustangs' best performer, as she has been all season, it was Victoria Heine's performance off the bench that was the catalyst for the Mustangs.
The fifth-year senior came off the bench, while still recovering from an injury, and put up 15 points on seven-of-10 shootings, along with nine rebounds.
"Victoria always has a wealth of potential within her. If she decides to bring it on any given day, then we're always going to be in a good position," said Cheng on Heine's productive afternoon. "She made some really good plays and some really good passes out of the high post. It kept us in the game."
The Mustangs had a slight 55–53 lead heading into the fourth quarter. And, while their zone defence was struggling to stop a Marauders offence that continued to pick them apart, the Mustangs only trailed by three points with a minute left in the game.
Then, Laura Graham hit a three from the corner to tie the game. But then McMaster's Jelena Mamic hit a three of her own to ultimately decide the game. The Mustangs fell. But they kept their dignity in the process.
Now the Mustangs will go on the road with confidence, as they head to Sault Ste. Marie next weekend for a two game series with the Algoma Thunderbirds. Then it's back home on Jan. 31 for a date with the Waterloo Warriors.
Algoma and Waterloo are a combined 3–29 on the year. They'll provide the Mustangs the ideal opportunity to get back above .500 and jump ahead of the Laurier Golden Hawks for sole possession of fourth place in the OUA West.
A loss will always sting, but in losing, the Mustangs learned what they're capable of when they play with resilience and hustle.