COQUITLAM — There was a moment late in the third quarter of Saturday’s Top 10 Shoot-Out championship final, when Walnut Gators’ senior forward Natalie Rathler seemed to be checking to make sure she still had all of her teeth.
Falling in the paint and then getting an inadvertent foot to the mouth can cause all kinds of havoc, not to mention pain, but while Rathler kept all of her teeth and avoided a trip to the dentist, it was going to take nothing short of a broken jaw to keep her off the floor when it mattered most.
While her talented Grade 11 teammate Tavia Rowell continued to set the standard for excellence in the B.C. girls high school basketball world this season with a complete performance that made her the deserving tournament MVP, Rathler’s blue-collar efforts in the paint were only strengthening the notion that the Gators are a deeply complete basketball team and the odds-on-favourite to collect all the B.C. Triple A spoils in early March.
Rowell scored a game-high 35 points, and Rathler added 24 points and 20 rebounds as No. 1 Walnut Grove remained undefeated on the season with an 83-64 win over No. 2-ranked Kelowna. The Owls were led by the 18 points of senior guard Taya Hanson, 12 more from Kennedy Dickie and 11 from Jaeli Ibbetson.
Walnut Grove, now 24-0 on the season, has won all six of the invitational tournaments it has entered, including the Tsumura Basketball Invitational in mid December when the Gators beat Abbotsford 75-65 behind a 41-point effort from Jessica Wisotzki.
In that game, Rowell played more the role of facilitator and was held to 14 points while Rathler scored nine points. On Saturday, Wisotzki was solid with 13 points. They are a triumvirate worth trumpeting.
“It gives me a big break when I know I have someone else there for me when I am getting double-teammed,” Rowell said. “Nat is there, and she can score. And I know Jess is there to score as well. We have so many others that can score, teams don’t really know what to do.”
THE NAT ATTACK
Rathler has always been a willing defender, and on a team that is not overly-populated by those who can make a difference in the paint, she plays a key role every time her team takes to the court.
For the season, according to head coach Darren Rowell, Rathler is averaging over 20 rebounds per game.
But the big surprise has been the sudden up-tick in her offensive game.
Looking like a completely different player on that end of the court than she was a month ago, the Fraser Valley Cascades recruit was showing incredible dexterity down low. In fact, a recently-added spin move was used enough times to suggest it was still felt like something of a new toy.
“That is something I have been working on recently in training,” she said with a smile. “I’ve picked it up pretty quickly so I am hoping that it is something I can continue to find success with.”
Coach Rowell admits he didn’t see that part of Rathler’s game taking such big steps forward this season.
“No,” he says, “but she’s just kept on getting better and better. In the last three weeks, she’s added a shot fake, she’s going to the basket…”
Rathler is averaging about 12 points and 20 rebounds per game on the season, but over the last three weeks, she has averaged about 19 ppg.
“Especially at my last two tournaments, I am getting shots up and it’s getting my confidence level up,” Rathler said.
A BASKETBALL PURIST’S TREAT: TAVIA VS. TAYA
The constant in all of Walnut Grove’s success, is of course Tavia Rowell.
And while Rathler represents the best hard-nosed qualities of the Gators, the Grade 11 guard Rowell wasn’t exactly shrinking into a finesse role Saturday, especially since she was being guarded by perhaps the province’s premier stopper, Owls’ senior guard Hanson.
“They way that she defends you, mentally it can get to you, it’s just draining,” admitted Rowell who was dogged by the Arizona State recruit for 40 minutes. “She is the hardest defender to play against in the province.”
Said Hanson, who spent her grade 11 year at TRC Basketball Academy in Brantford, Ont., before returning back home to rejoin her Owls’ teammates over her senior season: “The basketball experience I got back east was amazing and I feel like I’ve brought it back to B.C. I just wanted to be home with my family before heading off to Arizona State, to be with my team again and bring it one last year.”
Rowell said she had not played against Hanson in five years dating back to a game on the club circuit back in Rowell’s sixth-grade year.
Darren Rowell agreed with his daughter, that Hanson made her earn every point she scored.
“She is such a good defender that it really made it difficult for Tavia to get any easy looks,” he said of Hanson. “I thought Tavia did a good job of distributing and making others better, but she was also a great free throw shooter down the stretch.”
That’s an understatement.
Tavia Rowell scored her final eight points from the stripe, going 8-of-9 as the Owls were forced to foul late, allowing Walnut Grove to go on an 11-0 game-ending run.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT AFTER NO. 1 VS. NO. 2 SUPER CLASH?
For both head coaches, the stretch drive towards peaking on the road to the B.C.’s is soon set to begin in earnest.
“We’ve got a good five-to-six weeks to work out the kinks and I am confident we will because we keep getting better each week,” said Kelowna head coach Darren Semeniuk. “Right now, though, it feels like we’re a bit behind because our shooting is inconsistent and the way we’re put together right now, we get pretty stuck if we don’t hit shots.”
Tavia Rowell picked up on just that fact when she was asked what the turning point of the game was.
“I feel like it was when they stopped hitting their threes,” she said, focusing in on a stretch between the second and third quarters. “I feel like that is when Nat started to get her outlet passes to me, and we were able to run and score some easy hoops.”
The Owls managed just one trey over a second quarter in which they scored just seven points and trailed 37-28 at the break.
Walnut Grove started the second half off on a 12-5 run to lead 49-33, and although the Owls got to within eight at 72-64, Rowell prowess from the stripe iced the victory.
“It’s hard to sustain excellence all season,” Darren Rowell said of his Gators. “You expect a dip. We’ve had some bad halves, but never a bad game. We have enough depth that we can rely on different girls. That makes it easier to sustain when you have multiple players that can step up. But we don’t talk about being undefeated because we know how really close we are to Kelowna, and that we’ve had our difficulties with Abbotsford. All that said, our record doesn’t mean too much.”
Tavia Rowell (Walnut Grove)
FIRST TEAM ALL-STARS
Hailey Counsell (Heritage Woods)
Natalie Rathler (Walnut Grove)
Taya Hanson (Kelowna)
Sienna Lenz (Abbotsford)
Maddy Gobeil (South Kamloops)
SECOND TEAM ALL-STARS
Olivia Morgan-Cherchas (South Kamloops)
Georgia Alexander (Oak Bay)
Jenna Dick (Brookswood)
Sammy Shields (Riverside)
Jaeli Ibbetson (Kelowna)
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