By Casey Dulson, U SPORTS Women’s Basketball Correspondent
Playing basketball for McGill is in Alex Kiss-Rusk’s blood. The recently-crowned U SPORTS champion comes from a family of McGill hoopsters – her mother, Annette Kiss suited up for the Martlets from 1981-1986, while her father, Richard Rusk played for Redmen from 1979-1982.
“As athletes, they really understand the ups and downs of a season, “says the fourth-year Martlets center, who was crowned U SPORTS Championship MVP last month. “They treat me the same way, whether I have my best game or my worst game, so the consistency and pressure-free environment they provide has really allowed me to grow and become a better player and a better person.”
Kiss-Rusk had plenty of impressive performances down the stretch, guiding the Martlets to their first-ever Bronze Baby in school history and a sixth straight RSEQ Championship. A key player in McGill’s ascent to the top this season, the 6-foot-4 centre has been named U SPORTS Female Athlete of the Month for March.
“She is our anchor,” said Martlets head coach Ryan Thorne. “We go as Alex goes. “We might not win every game but she always gives us a chance.”
Kiss-Rusk along with her three brothers started playing sports at a young age - trying every sport you can think of from synchronized swimming to football.
At the age 15, the Beaconsfield, Que., native decided to focus entirely on basketball, which she credits as the best decision of her life.
“Basketball was the sport I had the most fun playing and I felt like I could do well, because I knew I loved it and would be playing it for a long time,” she said.
The campaign to glory
Entering her fourth year, Kiss-Rusk was looking to pick up where she left off last season – a career campaign when she was named an All-Canadian. The psychology major averaged 13.6 points per game in 16 contests in 2015-16, and was second in the country with 2.4 blocks per contest.
With the graduation of two-time RSEQ MVP and All-Canadian forward Mariam Sylla, however, Kiss-Rusk was looked upon for leadership.
“My first year at McGill, I redshirted and spent the whole year practicing against Sylla who is one of the most dominant post players in school history,” said the Martlets’ veteran. “With her graduation, coach Thorne worked with me and trusted me with a much bigger role on the court.”
The Martlets had a rocky start to the year, entering the holiday break with a 1-3 record, but the team rebounded in the second half to win eight of their last 12 games. Along the way, Kiss-Rusk finished the regular season averaging 14.1 points and 9.1 rebounds per game, while ranking fourth in the nation with 35 blocks.
“We had a lot of ups and downs this season dealing with injuries, so that was huge obstacle for me as a leader,” she says. “Trying to figure out how to play together with a new starting five every game was very tough.”
A national champion
As the calendar turned to March and the RSEQ Final Four, Kiss-Rusk scored a combined 26 points and grabbed 14 rebounds against UQAM and Concordia, including 18 points and seven boards in the RSEQ gold medal game, a 63-51 victory for the Martlets over the Stingers.
“I struggled a little bit during the RSEQ Final Four as teams in the conference knew how to play me and took me out of my game,” she said.
But Kiss-Rusk saved her best performance for last at the Final 8 at University of Victoria, where she averaged 17.0 points and 14.7 rebounds, and recorded a double-double in each of the three contests – leading the Martlets to their first U SPORTS title.
The highlight of the month and tournament came in the Championship final, where Kiss-Rusk had 20 rebounds in a 66-55 win against the Laval Rouge et Or. She also recorded a game-high on two occasions at the championship while shooting 40 per cent, including a 24-point performance against Carleton Ravens in semifinals.
“It was super cool to be recognized for having a great stat line, but that only happens because my teammates and coaching staff had a lot of trust in me,” says Kiss-Rusk.
“What you saw at nationals was what she had done from time to time in our league,” added Thorne. “Over a 16-game season, she was not always the best player on the court. But for three days in March, she definitely was.”
Kiss-Rusk believes that the Martlets played great team basketball at the ArcelorMittal Dofasco U SPORTS Final 8.
“Everyone stepped up which allowed me to play some of the best basketball I’ve played all season and throughout my career.”
The Martlets were no stranger to the U SPORTS championship game, having lost to Windsor just two seasons ago in Quebec City – the Lancers’ fifth consecutive national banner.
“The biggest difference between this year and 2015 was experience, “said Thorne. “2015 was our first time there as a team, staff and we played against the four-time national champions. This year we knew what to expect and how to succeed.”
The Martlets’ victory marked a pair of milestones for the RSEQ conference, with the championship trophy also receiving a long-awaited homecoming: The McGill-Laval matchup was the first time two Quebec schools had played in the national final. The Martlets also become the first Quebec program to win the Bronze Baby - which was originally donated by the McGill Students’ Council in 1922 - since the Bishop’s Gaiters captured back-to-back titles in 1983 and 1984.
“For us to have not only won it, but to have won it against another very strong team from our conference sends an important message to the country,” says Kiss-Rusk. “Hopefully we can get the same respect. To walk into the gym and see our accomplishment hanging up on the wall every day is such a rewarding feeling.”