BRANDON, Man. — The way the reign ended stung Brad Gushue more than losing the crown.
His team's bid to win a third straight Canadian men's curling championship was derailed by a tiny rock that not only denied Gushue an early lead, but loosened his control of the game.
Instead of scoring two with hammer, and perhaps three with the right roll, Brendan Bottcher stole a point when Gushue's final stone of the second end caught on debris.
Giving up four in the eighth end of a 7-2 loss to Bottcher in Saturday's playoff game was a dagger to Gushue's three-peat.
But the early thwarted stone put Gushue in a position where he felt he had to force the issue in eight with the score knotted 2-2.
It went badly for the defending champions.
So Bottcher's wild-card team from Edmonton faces Northern Ontario's Brad Jacobs in Sunday afternoon's semifinal at the Tim Hortons Brier.
"The pick was the story of the game," Gushue said. "Getting two in the second end, you can really dictate the play and control the game.
"Really disappointing. Probably one of the top three or four worst breaks I've had in my career. It happens. I've had it happen to us and happen against us. It's kind of disappointing the run ended on those terms."
Alberta's Kevin Koe downed Jacobs 9-4 in the Page playoff between the top two seeds to advance directly to Sunday evening's final.
Bottcher, Darren Moulding and front end Brad Thiessen and Karrick Martin represented Alberta when they lost 6-4 to Gushue in the Brier final last year in Regina.
With Koe eliminating Bottcher in the provincial semifinal this year, the rink had to beat Toronto's John Epping in the sudden-death, wild-card game the night before the main draw to gain entry again.
Bottcher climbed out of a five-point hole to defeat host Manitoba 9-8 in an extra end earlier in the tournament. No team had overcome a larger deficit at the Brier.
Quadruple points in Saturday's eighth end was the highest single-end score in a Page three-four game since the format was introduced in 1993.
"We've done a few wild-cardish things this week like coming back from a five-nothing deficit and winning that wild-card game," Moulding said. "We seem to have a few tricks up our sleeve."
After his stone in the second end went sideways, Gushue dug the offending pebble out of the ice with his fingernail.
"It was a big rock. It was sharp," he said. "When it went over it, I could see some snow flying from behind it.
"It's just a freak thing and it sucks. Really, after that happened, you could see Bottcher's team spirit really get higher. They played incredible after that. They outplayed us in the eighth end."
Bottcher acknowledged the pick was "crappy timing, but I'll take it for sure."
With hammer in the eighth, Moulding made two tough peels and Bottcher another to both keep the button clear and lay three. Gushue's defensive freeze hung out in the open for Bottcher to tap for four.
"You're running out of ends and at some point one team feels they're behind and they've got to push," Bottcher said. "That end, Brad was pushing hard.
"He was pushing hard for a force or a steal and we got a couple half-shots out of him at the end and that was really the game."
Gushue, third Mark Nichols and front end Brett Gallant and Geoff Walker from St. John's, N.L., had a strong chance to be just the second team to win three straight Briers after Alberta's Randy Ferbey (2001-03).
Gushue posted a combined 9-2 record in the preliminary and championship pools to tie with Jacobs behind Koe at 11-0.
But an extra-end loss to Jacobs on Friday bumped Gushue to the third seed.
Gushue as a skip is now a career 0-for-5 in Page three-four games in 17 Brier appearances.
"There's still lots of curling left in us," Gushue said. "We've had a good run, not only the last two years, but probably the last four years.
"I certainly expect there's still going to be some highlights left in this team, but it just feels rotten right now to end on that way the Brier run.
"That one is going to sting."