TORONTO — It was history nearly three decades in the making, stretching back to before any of the McMaster Marauders were born.
But the significance of the moment wasn't lost on Theresa Burns' players Saturday.
Sarah Gates scored 21 points to lead the No. 2 Marauders to a 73-66 victory over the third-seeded Saskatchewan Huskies in the first semifinal of the women's Final 8 tournament.
"They just made history tonight," Burns, McMaster's longtime head coach, said with a smile. "This it the best team that McMaster's ever had. Ontario champions. Gold or silver medal (Sunday). National final. These women just made history and I'm so proud of them."
McMaster will make its debut in the gold-medal game Sunday against No. 1 Laval, who held on to beat fourth-seeded Ottawa 60-56 in Saturday's late semifinal.
Sarah-Jane Marois, who earlier in the week won the Nan Copp Award as player of the year, scored 20 points to lead Laval, the 2017 national silver medallists. Jane Gagne added 16 points and 11 boards.
The Marauders' victory came 29 years to the day a McMaster team was ousted in the semifinal of the national tournament. The team went on to win one of the two bronze in the program's history. Before Saturday's semi, Burns said her email inbox and phone were flooded with messages from McMaster's basketball alumni.
"We told the players before the game that we'd had a million texts, messages and emails . . . So many best wishes," Burns said. "And what we tried to let them know was they're still talking to you guys and supporting you guys because their experience was so great."
What did the messages say?
"That they loved (playing at nationals) so much, it meant so much to them, and now you have to go out and get your own experience," Burns said.
Burns, who's in her 26th season as McMaster's head coach, said she'd wondered if and when her team would finally battle for the Bronze Baby.
"Oh, all the time," she said. "Every year you chase it and all kinds of things happen, there's so many variables to try to control, but we've been saying from Day 1, this team is very, very special and I'm just thrilled."
Hilary Hanaka added 19 points, while Christina Buttenham had 16 points and 10 rebounds for McMaster, who upset Ottawa 79-75 to win the Ontario conference title, then dispatched Concordia in Thursday's national quarterfinals.
"I think we've known we always had a good program," Hanaka said. "Just knowing that we're one step closer to that national gold medal, to bringing it home is absolutely amazing. We knew going into tonight we would make history after 29 years. I think we had that little extra oomph in us, that little extra fire."
Summer Masikewich had 21 points and 12 rebounds to top the Huskies, who won the tournament in 2016 and were silver medallists last year. They beat Acadia in the quarterfinals to advance to Saturday's semis.
The Marauders led 16-13 to end the first quarter and stretched their advantage to eight points in the second. Saskatchewan closed the half strong, and when Megan Ahlstrom connected on a three-pointer with a minute to play, her basket sent the teams into the halftime break tied 33-33.
McMaster broke the game open in the third, outscoring Saskatchewan 26-14 to take a 59-47 lead into the fourth. The Huskies battled back and a three-pointer by Sabi Dukate with 57 seconds left cut the Marauders' lead to four points with a minute to play. But that's as close as Saskatchewan would come.
"I think we had every opportunity to win that game," said Huskies coach Lisa Thomaidis. "Their defensive pressure was a difference, they wore us down and we had some costly mental errors, and that's what the defensive pressure does to you. When you're least expecting it you have a mental breakdown and turn the ball over and they capitalize and get some easy ones. And we didn't get anything easy today."
Burns captured a national title as a player with the University of Toronto in 1986. She told her young players this week: "It's the best feeling of your life. As an athlete, to get to the pinnacle, to get to the game, every athlete wants that opportunity. Just give me the chance to get out there and see if I can do that."
The game was a matchup between close friends. Thomaidis played her final three seasons at McMaster under Burns before she went on to become a McMaster Hall of Famer. Thomaidis, who's also Canada's women's head coach, credits Burns as the reason she got into coaching.
"(It would've been) a lot more fun if we'd come out on the winning side tonight, but the great thing is I hope they go out and win it tomorrow, win it all," Thomaidis said of McMaster. "So, either way we're both playing for a medal and I want nothing but the best for her and her program."
It was virtually a home game for McMaster, whose fans — most wearing maroon and white scarves — didn't have far to travel from Hamilton.
Canadian women's star Kia Nurse sat courtside, and while she joked that her allegiances were torn — Thomaidis is her national team coach — Nurse's heart was with her hometown Hamilton university, where her mom Cathy played.
Nurse also grew up playing with Hanaka, Buttenham and Erin Burns.
"They're a big reason why I am where I am today. So I got a lot of loyalty for Mac," Nurse said. "Those are the girls who allow me to play pickup with them in the summer when I come home. Mac is a place where I work out. It's where I know people, and my mom went, so it's absolutely incredible to see them playing the way they do."
When Hanaka hit a big third-quarter shot, Nurse leapt to her feet.
"I'm not a very calm fan is what I've learned," she laughed.
The second game saw Laval lead 13-10 after the first quarter and 24-23 at halftime. The teams went into the fourth quarter knotted at 42-42.
Ottawa sliced Laval's lead to just three points with less than a minute to play.
Laval's coach Guillaume Giroux credited the team's experience for holding on down the stretch.
"I'm really happy with the way they answered," Giroux said. "With three, four minutes, I told them, 'Hey, we've been there.'
"We're going to be calm, we're going to share the ball, we're going to play together and that's exactly what they did. I was very happy with their answer. They're used to playing with each other, they have confidence in themselves and it showed in the last minutes."
Brigitte Lefebvre-Okankwu led Ottawa with 17 points.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press