LANGLEY — Scour the basketball world and we’re pretty sure you’ll be able to find the analytical formulas which attempt to best define excellence on the court.
Yet if you happened to be among the 6,000-plus delirious fans who set a new single-event attendance record late Saturday night at the Langley Events Centre for the B.C. senior boys Quad-A basketball championship final between the Burnaby South Rebels and Surrey’s Semiahmoo Thunderbirds, no actual numbers or calculations are required.
In the case of Burnaby South senior centre Karan Aujla, all you had to do was put him to the good, old-fashioned eye-test to know that something very special had indeed unfolded.
On a night in which the Rebels’ program joined the blue blood elites at Richmond, Vancouver College and Victoria’s Oak Bay as the only top-tiered programs to win five senior varsity provincial titles, its 6-foot-8 pivot put in the kind of performance so complete that its feats could not be contained within the parametres of the standard box score.
And that’s because in the aftermath of No. 5 seed Burnaby South’s 72-57 victory over No. 7 Semiahmoo, it was no stretch to say that Aujla had played a perfect game.
“Karan did exactly what we asked him to do, and he did it to a T,” remarked Rebels’ Mike Bell, who himself not only ascended into elite status among B.C. senior boys basketball head coaches with a third provincial title, but did so by leading the program to that so-called ‘dynasty’ stage, with that entire trio of titles coming over the last four championship tournaments.
“He stayed disciplined,” Bell continued. “He really didn’t jump. He did everything we asked. He contained. He executed the game-plan perfectly.”
You may notice here that none of this post-game celebratory talk is centred around offence.
And, as you may also know, the student-athlete in question had not played for a solid month until the tournament tipped off Wednesday as he returned from a partially-torn MCL in his right knee.
So as we continue to drum home the idea of perfection in the biggest and final game of both a glorious re-start season and of Aujla’s high school career, that narrative becomes easier to understand if you just think about the kid’s right knee.
There were splendid performances all over Ken Winslade Court in the LEC’s Arena Bowl Complex on Saturday.
The Rebels would not be in the title game had it not been for the way senior guard and eventual tournament-MVP Jimmy Zaborniak picked up his teammates, through his sheer force of will over an entire month-plus of games, culminating with his sublime 18-point, eight-rebound effort against the T-Birds.
Ditto for South’s 6-foot-5 Grade 11 forward Armaan Hehar whose inside-out play and red-hot three-point shooting streak netted 11 points and nine rebounds, and physical fellow Grade 11 forward Andy Chen’s 13 points and 12 rebounds.
Yet against a Semiahmoo team with just one senior in its entire rotation, a team so young that along its journey to the final as South Fraser zone champs, it enjoyed the benefit of never knowing how truly big their moments actually were, so much of it was going to come down to one player’s ability to both survive and thrive as his team’s last line of defence.
“They have some talented Grade 10s in (guard) Torian (Lee) and (power forward-guard) Cole (Bekkering), and (at the tournament) they had been beating their defenders,” explained Aujla after the game.
“And you know, just for me, I had to make sure nobody was scoring, and that I was getting all of the rebounds I could,” he continued. “Defensively, I was supposed to protect the paint.”
Yes, protect the paint.
For bigs, the age-old credo is their truest badge of basketball honour.
And therein lies theessence of the perfection we all witnessed over the 37 minutes in which Aujla, positioned in the middle of the deep paint, used his greatest assets of strength, wing-span, discipline and IQ to block, frustrate, disrupt and alter an entire team’s ability to establish what is the heartbeat of the offensive game: A synchronous five-man rhythm.
“He was patient because we tried to get him in isolation situations, and he didn’t bite,” said Semiahmoo head coach Ed Lefurgy afterwards, full of pride for the efforts of his own team. “He played a great, great game.”
And as the championship game’s veteran on-air analyst Paul Eberhardt stressed throughout Saturday’s broadcast, he did it without ever reaching any degree of foul jeopardy, rarely ever even leaving his feet, and standing tall with arms extended.
“He was outstanding… he changed the game because Semiahmoo relies on that inside presence, and he was able to deal with both of their big guys,” said Eberhardt of Bekkering and 6-foot-7 Grade 11 forward Marcus Floares. “He really prevented Semiahmoo from scoring in the main ways that they do. I thought he was absolutely outstanding.”
It was a stark contrast to just the night before, in Friday’s semifinal win over Langley’s Walnut Grove Gators, in which the Rebels themselves were unable to remain metronomic in their play because Aujla was having to yo-yo from court to bench and back.
“Yesterday, I had a lot of foul trouble and I had to sit out so much of the game, so Mike just said to me ‘Keep your hands up,’” related Aujla. “Just stand up straight and don’t go for those big blocks.”
It worked to, well, perfection.
Semiahmoo’s Lee and Bekkering proved that, despite their youth, they are each players capable of going for 30-plus points in a game. They had taken their respective turns at doing just that over the Thunderbirds’ Elite 8 and Final 4 wins.
Clearly, there time has arrived.
But on Aujla’s watch, in the last game of his high school career, he wasn’t going to let it happen.
To the level of uncanny and beyond, the big man’s positioning was peerless as he helped stake his to team to a lead as large as 19 points throughout the team’ pivotal third quarter.
Combined, Aujla’s calm and confidence were large enough to occupy the space of two, and the heart of everything he did was anchored at the very juncture opposition coaches thought might be the weak link in the defending champion’s armour: That recently-healed right knee.
“The rest of our team? Ahhh, the injuries are deep,” coach Bell said of the unnamed walking wounded among his gutsy roster. “Karan, he’s healthy. It wasn’t a question at our end.”
So healthy, in fact, that if you read between the lines, perhaps there was a chance that Aujla could have come back during the team’s rocky run to third-place at the Fraser North zone championships?
Bell didn’t say as much, but there is no question about the fact that the big question was going to centre around Aujla’s conditioning.
“He probably could have if he wanted to,” Bell stated of an earlier return and of the team’s desire to be 100 per cent extra cautious. “But these were the four games that mattered, and he got it done.”
And with it for Aujla, not only two senior varsity provincial titles, but a junior one as well from his Grade 9 year in 2108-19, and that’s no easy task considering there was no 2020-21 season.
“He is a high-IQ basketball player,” said South junior head coach and senior assistant Rupi Dahia, who first coached Aujla in the club ranks at Ath-Elite as a sixth grader. “But he has always had the soft hands and the big body. He’s grown into his athleticism and he is a kid who bought in. He came to Burnaby South because he wanted to win titles, and he’s three for three.”
Of course, three was the magic number Saturday.
And as Bell became thrice-ringed as a head coach, his place in the pantheon of B.C. boys high school basketball’s most successful head coaches was cemented.
“That is elite status,” said Eberhardt, a 2011 winner himself at Richmond’ R.C. Palmer and a national CCAA winner at his current posting with Langara. “How many have done that? I had a brief chat with him just now, and he was actually overcome just thinking about it.”
(Editor’s note-As your faithful writer is going on very little sleep since the calendar turned to March, compiling such a coaches list doesn’t fit this story’s timetable for completion as several have won titles over different tiers. The main point here is to establish coach Bell’s milestone. But, I know my faithful readers will let me know through the comment section at the bottom of this story who those others are and I thank you in advance. And to those who are on that list, you surely know that my hat tips to you today)
“Mike Bell is just an amazing guy,” added Dahia. “He never talks about it, but I know he wanted it this year.. you could tell. I am so thankful that he brought me in, a kid from North Delta, and he made us all buy in his system.
“Look what happened.”
With all of the obstacles placed in front of high school coaches today, Burnaby South’s is indeed a dynasty built on perseverance and energy.
Which bring us back to the kid who perhaps best personified those traits on Saturday.
“The first time I met him, he was on the other team,” remembers Aujla, whose club team faced one coached by Bell back in his elementary school days.
“You see him, and he is like this crazy coach,” Aujla continued in the most endearing way possible. “That is something I wanted. He always pushed us to be our best and to never settle for anything less.”
On Saturday, in a high school basketball game with the largest championship finals attendance in over a generation to recommend it, to “never settle”, for Aujla, meant to play the defensive game of his life.
He did, and he did it perfectly.
So much so, that it slipped this story’s mind to inform that he also shared the game-high in rebounds with 13, and led it in scoring with 22 points.
On Saturday, B.C. high school basketball came back in a way we may never have imagined even a month ago.
And now, as it enters its eight months of hibernation, it will great to miss what we know we haven’t lost.
(STILL TO COME: Our look at the B.C. Boys Triple-A final)
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