Basketball X-Women shooting for return to AUS playoffs

Photo credit Mya Slawter
Photo credit Mya Slawter

White and Blue focused on playing smothering defense

By Corey LeBlanc

Defense wins championships.

That often-used – and, at times, disputed – sports adage would seem to be the perfect fit for a STFX X-Women basketball program that, before shooting for an Atlantic University Sport (AUS) banner, is focused on making a return to the conference playoffs.

"Our goal is to be a defensive juggernaut," second-year X-Women head coach Matt Spencer said.

Noting that improvement on that side of the ball has been a "daily emphasis" since the start of training camp, the Antigonish native explained that his White and Blue did not reach an acceptable level "in any way, shape or form" in that key aspect of the sport last season.

After surrendering more than 84 points per game – the most in USPORTS women's basketball – Spencer said that they are shooting for a spot in the top half of the country, when it comes scoring defense, if not the top third or quarter.

"We want to be disruptive and hard to play against," he added.

Spencer explained that the goal is to have opponents – when they have the ball – feel like, literally and figuratively, they are surrounded by multiple defenders.

"It requires a lot of effort," he offered of the energy that has to be expended to reach that level.

Because of that, he noted, "You have to be deep."

When it comes to the X-Women roster, Spencer said defensively – and in every other facet of the game – a program "cannot expect one person to carry the weight."

He added, "We want to do things by committee."

Helping to lead the way, as part of that collective effort, will be senior forward Ekaterina Karchevskaya (Mogilev, BY), who has returned for her second season in White and Blue, after starting her AUS career with 10.4 points and 3.9 rebounds per game in 2022-23.

"She had a terrific offseason," Spencer said, noting that she spent several weeks in Antigonish over the spring and summer working with former X-Women head coach and now X-Men associate coach Doc Ryan.

He explained that Karchevskaya will be a key scorer, rebounder and defender for the X-Women.

Another veteran returning for her second season in White and Blue is Katie Upham (North River, NS), who started her collegiate career with the Calgary Dinos.

"Katie has a real sense of purpose; she sets the standard for our team," Spencer offered, noting that she is hungry to finish her final season on a high note.

He noted that Upham – who averaged 8.4 points and 4.2 rebounds per game last season, while finishing amongst the conference leaders in assists (74) – is coming off a strong summer as a member of the Maritime Women's Basketball Association (MWBA) champion Halifax Thunder.

The X-Women's two true sophomores – Lauren Neeve (Oro-Medonte, ON) and Krissy Cooper (Hamilton, ON) – have both taken a step forward. "Lauren is one of the grittiest defenders in the conference and has added some scoring punch to her game from last year. Krissy is just playing with a lot more confidence and she is ready to go."

Junior forward Elizabeth Kennedy (Richmond, BC), according to Spencer, returned to the Antigonish campus in the "best shape of her career."

He added, "She has really started to assert herself, which has been really nice to watch."

Spencer said, "We have added a great recruiting class."

When it comes to newcomers, he expects 6'0" forward Shannon Neita (Toronto, ON) – a product of the highly-regarded Scarborough Prep program – to make an immediate impact.

"Shannon is a very capable defender, rebounder and scorer," Spencer offered.

He added, "She is going to move the needle for us on both sides of the ball."

Cape Breton product Alisha McNeil (Alder Point, NS), another first-year X-Woman, joins the program after a stellar four-year stint with the Mount Saint Vincent University Mystics of the Atlantic Collegiate Athletic Association (ACAA).

"She wanted to test herself at the so-called next level," Spencer explained.

He added, "And, Alisha is making the most of it."

Noting that McNeil has earned a well-deserved reputation as a "ball hawk," Spencer said that the former Memorial Marauder in her high school days will be a key asset to an improved X-Women defense.

When asked about his program's expectations, he offered, "You never really know what the season has in store."

Nevertheless, if they stick to their game plan, continue to develop and – of course – stay healthy, Spencer said, "We should be a playoff team."

Last season, the X-Women – who finished 3-17 – and the Dalhousie Tigers were the AUS teams that did not make the playoffs.

Spencer added, once that goal is reached, they will "recalibrate" for the home stretch in late February and early March.

"We always have incredible support," he said of their fans, including a tremendously loyal alumni.

With proud X grads, and other donors, Spencer noted that the team would never have been able to make a team-building trip to Barcelona, Spain earlier this year.

"We were the only varsity team on campus last season that didn't make the playoffs, but our fans never held it against us. They continued to come out and support us, which meant a lot to everyone," he explained.

Noting other examples of that backing, Spencer said members of the 1997 X-Women paid a special visit with his team during Homecoming 2023.

"Their message was exactly in line with what we are looking for with our program," he added.

Considering that most teams in the conference have lost all-star calibre talent from last season, including the X-Women, who saw Aliyah Fraser move on to Saint Mary's, where she will play for the defending AUS champion Huskies; not to mention retooling with recruiting classes, Spencer expects a "compression in the standings" in 2023-24.

He offered, along with displaying that parity in the pre-season, AUS programs have shown that they can compete with the other conferences in USPORTS.

"I am really pleased with where we are at," Spencer said of his X-Women.

He noted that, since their training camp trip overseas, they have been "on a different plane."

The X-Women will tip off the AUS regular season with a weekend homestand against the UNB Reds on Friday, Oct. 27 (6 p.m. ADT) and Saturday, Oct. 28 (2 p.m. ADT). They'll take to the road the following two weekends before returning to the Saputo Centre on Friday, Oct. 17, at 6 p.m. for a game against the Dalhousie Tigers.

"We are ready to go. It is going to be an exciting season," Spencer said.

For more information on the STFX X-Women are their 2023-24 season unfolds, visit