LANGLEY — This is a story that began 365 days ago, with a vow from a head coach that both he and his basketball team, gutted in defeat, would return to tend to unfinished business.
Yet Tim Unaegbu never figured that the most satisfying moment of his coaching life would come over the final four days of the countdown to that one year wait, the four days of the 2018 B.C. senior boys Triple A basketball championships, the four days over which he had been put on regulated basketball excommunication from the very student-athletes with whom he had long since forged a lifetime bond.
If you haven’t already heard, the South Kamloops Titans defeated Burnaby’s Byrne Creek Bulldogs 74-66 in Saturday’s B.C. Triple A championship game at the Langley Events Centre’s Arena Bowl, one week after its senior girls won the Double AA title, also at the LEC.
And in case you may not have been aware, it was a feat accomplished with Unaegbu, the team’s inspirational head coach, serving the final few games of a 10-game suspension handed down by his local Okanagan association for technical foul violations.
That suspension forbade him from being with the team during its games, and thus on Saturday, with the title game at halftime, Unaegbu left his room team hotel, hopped in his car and proceeded to make the drive to the LEC, hoping against hope that by the time he arrived, he’d see a lot of familiar, smiling faces.
NICK OF TIME
Nick Sarai was picked to the B.C. all-tournament first team a season ago. His back-court running mate Reid Jansen was named the Top Defensive Player.
Yet on that March 12 day at the LEC, when the Titans surrendered their lead to Abbotsford’s Rick Hansen Hurricanes with 5:30 remaining, the mission immediately became to make a return and win it all.
“Just seeing all the posts on social media about Rick Hansen, and how we were leading in the fourth quarter then we collapsed,” gushed Sarai after Saturday’s win. “Every day we were driven by the thought of Rick Hansen hoisting the trophy instead of us. But we knew going into this year that we would be expected to win. But people still thought we were underdogs. It didn’t matter. We believed in ourselves. And this championship? It was for Tim.”
For the record, Sarai was superb.
In the early stages of the season, with guard Evan Jumaga and post Ripley Martin both injured, Sarai and Jansen carried critical leadership roles. And on Saturday, both were again excellent, especially Sarai, who scored a game-high 28 points and went 12-for-12 from the free throw line.
11 SECONDS TO VICTORY
Back at the team hotel, Tim Unaegbu had his laptop screen flipped up, proudly watching assistant coach Bryce McMillan assuming the lead coaching role as he had done all week.
After South Kam had built a 26-10 lead on a Sarai triple with 46 seconds left in the first quarter, Byrne Creek rallied in the second quarter behind the playof stars Bithow Wan and Martin Djunga.
It was early in the fourth quarter, 1:33 in to be exact, when Djunga deposited a fast-break layin to tie the score, that Unaegbu decided it was time to turn the game off.
“I’m in my hotel room and it’s 59-59 when I shut off my laptop,” the coach says. “My phone isn’t working. I am 15 minutes away from the LEC.”
Speaking with B.C. Boys High School Basketball president Paul Eberhardt earlier in the day for clarification, Unaegbu learned that he could join his team the moment the game is over.
So on blind faith, he gets behind the wheel of his car and drives towards the arena, just hoping that his team can get the job done.
“I prayed extensively in that car,” Unaegbu would say later. “I prayed to God.”
And then he arrived, headed through the turnstiles and into the bowels of Arena Bowl, where he found himself peeking out onto the floor.
“I came here and there were 11 seconds left and Nick was on the free throw line,” he says, of Sarai who would nail his 11th and 12th freebies of the contest.
They were the final two points of the game. Seconds later, pandemonium ensued.
STRAIGHT A’S FOR THESE ASSISTANTS
Our B.C. high school basketball world celebrates great moments, but even more importantly, it doesn’t forget them.
In 2011, the first year this grand event came to the LEC as a stand-alone top-tiered AAA championship, Richmond’s R.C. Palmer Griffins made a breathtaking comeback from 17 points down to beat the Vancouver College Fighting Irish 71-63 in the title game.
The year previous, however, in the 2010 B.C. Double A championships played in Kamloops, the Griffins has made it all the way to the title game before bowing out 65-48 to Britannia.
And while not suggesting destiny in any way regarding this season’s Titans’ team, it is important to note that South Kamloops had a very direct tie to those two Palmer teams in assistant coach Mike Flaco Zayas.
What he went through as a player in back-to-back seasons, seven and eight years ago, is exactly what his players were experiencing this season.
And thus, with a one-year mission on everyone’s mind, Zayas never ever stopped imparting his experience and wisdom on the players.
“I’ve told that story pretty much every day in practice and every day here at the tournament,” Zayas said after the win, with what was left of his voice charged with emotion.
“I’m so sorry I’ve lost my voice,” he continued, “but they emulated my story and it is amazing.”
And of course there is McMillan.
All week long he was the picture of leadership and control at the Titans’ bench.
Without question the team was following Unaegbu’s vision, but the suspended coach had to feel fortunate that a coach of McMillan’s staure was there to take the helm and run the gauntlet.
“I was tough without him,” admitted McMillan after the win. “He is our leader. He is our general. He was with us during the week at the hotel, game-planning behind the scenes doing everything he could. Everybody played this one for him.”
SUNDAY MORNING TRADITION
And so Timmy Unaegbu, a PoCo kid who played at Terry Fox, waited in the tunnel for those last 11 seconds to tick off the clock.
And when he reached the floor, he got lost in the mass of happy bodies, all hugging and high-fiving and crying.
But then he found his fellow coaches, his players. And the celebration, which began around 7 p.m. might still be going on today.
“So last year, we made the mistake of trying to win on pure heart, and not focusing on game plans,” Unaegbu said. “But this year we had extensive game plans. You saw us play a young-and-fast Carihi on the first day, then a Duchess Park team so well-coached by Jordan Yu, a Pitt Meadows team which is very physical and likes to take it inside, and then today, a Byrne Creek team which is so quick and gets in the lanes.
“So you saw all styles of South Kamloops basketball in four games, when people thought we were done the first day,” added Unaegbu, referencing a 58-51 win over Carihi in which the Titans shot 0-for-24 from three-point range.
At which point, he remembered a discussion he had with a reporter one year ago.
“They were in the gym the next morning and we have been going all year,” Unaegbu said. “We started off this year with a lot of injuries, but I said to the guys that once everybody came back, no one was going to beat us.”
And not to make this sound too much like a torch-passing ceremony of sorts, but we need to give the last work to one of the classiest coaches in the province, a guy every bit as passionate for his own kids and also one who has heard the story of the 2017 Titans heading back to the gym day after last season’s title-game loss.
“It’s a testament to Tim that they can perform and keep the same culture that he instilled,” said Bulldogs head coach Bal Dhillon in the moments immediately following his team’s loss. “I don’t know what Tim did to get suspended but he is a great guy and I can’t envision him doing anything that would get him suspended. So that is weird to me, but it is what is.”
And then Dhillon, whose team returns a huge number of key players next season, added on Saturday: “We’ll be in the gym the next day. And we’d have been there even if we had won.”
And thus we say, with anticipation in our hearts, let the countdown begin… again.
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