LANGLEY — Darren Semeniuk is not kicking himself because he didn’t realize it earlier.
He’s just happy that somewhere along the road of a long senior girls basketball season, he realized that the roster of his Kelowna Owls was perfectly suited to embrace every aspect of becoming a team which could press, trap and suffocate B.C.’s best teams into submission.
Yes, Kelowna had one of the province’s ultra-elite players in guard Taya Hanson.
And yes, their team was deep, committed and multi-skilled.
Yet that doesn’t mean the rest of the field at the B.C. Triple A championships knew precisely what they would be getting from an Owls team everyone agreed was excellent, but weren’t fully sure just how and why.
They all know now.
With a pressure scheme that didn’t become serious until the new year now fully functional, the Owls did the near-unthinkable in slowing down the vaunted offence of Langley’s Walnut Grove Gators in Saturday’s championship final, rallying to win 67-61 in front of a near-sell-out crowd at the Langley Event Centre’s Centre Court arena.
It was the first B.C. senior varsity girls basketball championship for Kelowna Secondary and comes two years after the 2016 boys team won its first senior varsity title in the same LEC venue.
Trailing at one stage by 12 points in the second quarter, Kelowna’s defence and the offensive leadership of tourney MVP Hanson and first-team all-star Kennedy Dickie affected a 25-point swing by the late stages of the third quarter, and when Dickie grabbed a rebound and converted it to a bucket with 51 seconds left in the third frame, the Owls led 54-41.
From that stage forward, the Gators pushed their hardest, something everyone expected given their pronounced level of grit and talent.
With 6:20 left, Rowell dropped a trey at the shot clock buzzer to make it 57-52, and with 4:35 left, Top Defensive Player Sophia Wisotzki (16 points) hit another triple, this one to make it 59-55.
Yet that is as close as the Gators would get.
On Kelowna’s next possession, guard Dez Day, who finished with 11 points, hit her third triple of the night to make it 62-55.
How incredible was this re-invention?
Consider that on Jan. 20, in the final of the Top 10 Shoot-Out Tournament at Coquitlam’s Centennial Secondary, the two teams met in the championship final and Walnut Grove won for the 24th straight time against B.C. competition, literally blowing the Owls out of gym with an 83-64 win.
That was 42 days ago! Six weeks!
The progress made over that span was stunning and Walnut Grove head coach Darren Rowell admitted as much after the loss.
“They took us out of our game and disrupted us more than we wanted” he said. “When we beat them two previous times, we didn’t see that pressure defence. We didn’t see the full-court defence. What really stuck with us was their offence. Today it was their defence. I thought we did an OK job of competing with them, but that defence of theirs was at another level.”
The Gators’ trio of Rowell (19 points), Jessica Wisotzki (8 points) and Natalie Rathler (14 points) came into the game averaging a combined 72 points per game, but were held to just 41 combined by Kelowna.
ALL THE PIECES FIT
Timed within a bounty of basketball karma for head coach Darren Semeniuk was the return of senior guard Taya Hanson from a prep school.
Hanson, Arizona State-bound next season, is that once-in-a-generation talent whose skill is matched by her humility and love for her teammates.
That was the Owls’ first building block.
Then, young talent in players like Grade 11s Jaeli Ibbetson and Kennedy Dickie, players who do not replicate Hanson’s skill in any way, have risen together to bring a mix of physical athleticism to the front court.
Surround that mix with a dedicated senior guard group in Casey Patchell, Rachel Hare and Day, and you have that team which was ready to mould its identity to that of a relentless defensive machine.
And again, if you thought you knew about all of this a long time ago, then you knew something that even the team’s head coach did not.
Like we said, daily Semeniuk realized more and more what he actually had, and when he got down to work with them it all came together.
“We only started with the full-court stuff at Christmas and they all bought in,” he says, almost seeming a little incredulous about the whole thing himself, given what it had just accomplished on Saturday.
“I knew we were pretty mobile across five players and I thought we could play fast and pressure,” he continued. “But doing the full-court stuff seemed to have a way of making our half-court (defence) better, too, because our rotations are the same, just over a smaller place.”
Clearly, there was a huge, concentrated time dedicated to the believing in the system and trusting each other so that its shape would maintain the necessary integrity.
And when it was finally unleashed, it worked like a charm.
Round one: 87-51 over Heritage Woods.
Round two: 68-32 over Argyle.
Round three: 81-59 over Semiahmoo.
“We’ve worked so hard it, we’ve been relentless,” said Hanson, who had 18 points, 11 rebounds and six assists in her final high school game. “Doing all of those slides hurt, but they show in a game and they worked. Coach is such an amazing coach and he knew us so well.”
Everything, of course, is easier to accomplish with a talented like Hanson.
“It’s so much more than what she does on the floor,” said Semeniuk. “She took over leadership responsibilities right away. She’s such an unselfish player. She wants to score for her team, but she is so happy when others do. When she came home, it just gave us that extra edge we needed to compete against the tough teams. And she brings out so much of that in the other players, too.”
And when a homecoming finishes this perfectly, Hanson wasn’t even going to pretend she knew what to say.
“What a way to end it,” she started. “I can’t even wrap my head around it. I can’t get over how much I love my team, winning it for our team and representing our school.”
And if anything, Hanson passed the torch to the next group, most specifically Dickie, who picked the perfect game to put all her physical attributes together with her sublime sense of timing to score a game-high 21 points.
“Kennedy has been up and down all year, but for her to have that game, in the biggest game of her career, I was astonished,” said Semeniuk.
So, too, it seems, was Dickie.
“I don’t know what happened, but it was crazy,” she said. “It just happened.”
Kind of like a head coach knowing his girls well, trusting his gut, and asking them to work towards a goal of re-inventing their collective persona.
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