Road to the Final 8: Cougars turned 'plane ride home' into championship fuel

Road to the Final 8: Cougars turned 'plane ride home' into championship fuel

In the lead up to the U SPORTS Women's Basketball Final 8 in Victoria (March 9-12), Canada West is taking a trip down memory lane, highlighting the conference's past national champions. In our latest feature, we look at the Regina Cougars, who captured the Bronze Baby in 2000-01.

Brian Swane, Special to Canada West

EDMONTON - The Regina Cougars arrived in Edmonton at the 2000 Canadian university women’s basketball championship with a victory bash practically part of their itinerary.

Rather than depart following the gold medal game, they made bookings to stay overnight and fly home in the morning, allowing for an evening of celebration.

But after losing in the semifinal round, Regina was left to play for the bronze medal instead of the Bronze Baby.

That night, the Cougars were guests at a party honouring the newly crowned Victoria Vikes. When they finally got back to Regina, they had experienced an epiphany.

“We remember that plane ride home the next morning after partying with the winners and watching the winners celebrating,” says Bree Burgess, a Cougars guard from 1997 to 2002. “We were like, ‘Ok we don’t want to be in this position again.'”

On the tips of their shoes, each player wrote in gold maker ‘PRH’; as in, ‘plane ride home’.

“Every free throw, every stop of play, if you’re tired, you put your hands on your knees and you look at your runners, you remember that feeling.”

That sentiment was the driving force for the Cougars the following season, quite simply the greatest in Regina women’s basketball history.

Every year that we got to participate in nationals, we learned a little bit about what was needed to win the big games,” says Heather McMurray (nee: Dedman), captain of the 2000-01 Cougars. “The experience we had in ‘99-‘00, where we were so close to making it to the national final, was one that no one forgot.  Winning a bronze medal that year felt like such a let-down, and we all consciously remembered how it felt to come up just a little bit short.

Regina was guided by coach Christine Stapleton, who had taken over in 1993, as the Cougars were coming off back-to-back seasons finishing last in the regular season, and built the program into a perennial contender that reached nationals five consecutive times in the late 90s and early 2000s.

“Christine was an intense coach, who demanded excellence from everyone,” McMurray recalls. “From the best player down to the last one to come off the bench, everyone worked hard all of the time.  We were an extremely fit team as a result, which really helped with our ‘run and gun’ style of play.”

Regina topped the standings in 2000-01 with a 20-2 regular season record, then swept aside Brandon in the semi-final and Manitoba in the final, never letting off the gas pedal.

They had led feet; increased ‘MPH’ by ‘PRH’.

“That was always the little bit of motivation that the team needed to get,” Burgess says of the acronym.

“Over a five month season, you lose focus, you go through waves of really good competition and then you get a little relaxed, and anytime that we were getting too comfortable, it was funny how a story of that memory would come back up and it would just fuel us, we would just get so upset.”

The Cougars were headed back to Edmonton for Nationals, but with a notably different schedule. Wary of how things played out 12 months earlier, Stapleton decided the team would fly back to Regina right after the championship game had concluded.

Regina breezed past McMaster, 93-49, in the quarterfinal round, before advancing to the final by gutting out a 71-67 victory against a game Calgary Dinos squad.

The last obstacle standing between the Cougars and a national title was the host Alberta Pandas. The place was packed, with the overwhelming majority of a raucous crowd rooting against the Cougars.

Just how they liked it.

“We had a lot of players on that team who did quite well away from home because they were energized by attention,” Burgess says. “It didn’t matter if the attention was negative, like if people were trash-talking from the sideline or yelling. We had a lot of players who just took that energy as pure energy as opposed to, ‘Oh, they’re cheering against to me’.”

The atmosphere inside the U of A’s Main Gym was electric from tip until the final buzzer sounded with the scoreboard reading Regina 94, Alberta 85.

The Cougars were champs.

And now they had a flight to catch.

“You got to say hi to your family, a couple people did interviews and then it was like, ‘Ok, shower if you want to and then we gotta go’” Burgess laughs. “It was nuts.”

The plane ride home was much different this time, though naturally the players couldn’t help but think about how much fun the champs had partying after winning the year earlier. It wasn’t until much later, McMurray says, that the Cougars grasped how remarkable an an achievement it was to win nationals.

“So many things have to go right,” she says. “You need the right coaches, the right mix of player talent and personalities, and you need to be lucky enough to stay healthy. 

“I think it was difficult to appreciate how rare our accomplishment was in the moment, but looking back 16 years later, we realize how lucky we were to be part of such a great experience.”

Next up on the Road to the Final 8…the Saskatchewan Huskies (Friday, March 3).

More on the U SPORTS Women's Basketball Final 8:

For the first time since 1993, the best women's basketball teams in Canada will converge on the University of Victoria for the U SPORTS Final 8 national championship tournament. 

Watch Canada's brightest basketball stars compete for the national championship title at the new CARSA Performance Gym in Victoria from March 9-12.

Tournament packages are now on sale for the 11-game event at