No. 1 RIVERSIDE 73 No. 2 WALNUT GROVE 68
By Howard Tsumura
LANGLEY — Saturday night’s championship final of the showcase Super 16 bracket here at the Tsumura Basketball Invitational produced not only a worthy champion, but yet another reminder that we are in the midst of what might be the most dominant individual streak of scoring the B.C. girls high school game has ever seen.
The No. 1-ranked Riverside Rapids of PoCo lived up to their on-paper billing by repeating as TBI champs, leading wire-to-wire against Langley’s No. 2-ranked Walnut Grove en route to a 73-68 victory.
Yet it was the unflappable force of the Gators’ superstar senior Kiera Pemberton which kept the margin within a possession or two for what seemed like the vast majority of the game, and especially the fourth quarter.
Indeed it was a rare evening of hoops at the LEC’s Centre Court complex.
On one hand, Pemberton, the 6-foot senior guard who was later selected Tsumura Invitational MVP, was pulling everything out of her bag of tricks, once again taking her game to transcendent places by scoring into the 40’s for the fourth time in four days, her 46-point effort yielding an eye-popping 45.8 points TBI scoring average.
On the other hand, Riverside was busy showing everyone that its extended residency atop the Quad-A polls was based on a whole lot more than any reputation as reigning provincial finalists because when calm was needed throughout the kind of united front required to slow the ever-surging Pemberton, these Rapids re-configured, displaying the kind of adaptability traits associated with maturity and growth.
And if you clapped those two hands together, the result was the kind of classic that deserved its own personal bookmark within the pages of special B.C. girls hoops moments.
THE WALNUT GROVE STORY
The two most important things to remember about Kiera Pemberton as it pertains to her place within the roster of the 2022-23 Gators, is that she cares as much about her defence as she does about her offence, and that all of her offence comes within the framework of the game, and with the full support of each of her teammates.
With that said, take a deep breath.
Saturday’s 46 points comes on the heels of the 48 she scored Wednesday in her team’s 76-45 opening-round win over Triple-A No. 9 Argyle, the 42 more she added Thursday in an 82-48 quarterfinal win over Quad-A No. 3 Kelowna, and the 47 she scored Friday night in a 74-67 win over Double-A No. 1 Mulgrave in the semifinals.
No exactly a quartet of middling foes. In fact far from it.
Yet if you zeroed in on Saturday’s championship final, you would have seen the purposeful strides she took to get her teammates involved as early as possible.
That is easier said than done against a behemoth like Riverside, and thus, as the game would largely demand, the North Dakota-bound Pemberton did what she had to do, all amidst of flurry of spin-o-rama-fuelled lay-ins, turnaround jumpers, blistering transition finishes and, perhaps most telling of all, those put-backs off offensive rebounds in the highest of spaces.
She scored her team’s first 19 points, had 21 by the break and then moved mountain and earth to try and help lift her team to victory.
At one stage, her six straight points — a beautiful step-through lefty lay-in book-ended by two sonic-speed coast-to-coast driving lay-ups — pulled the Gators to within 68-66 with 1:39 remaining.
And by the time she woke up to a snowy Sunday morning on the West Coast with her MVP bauble, Pemberton had broken the 40-point barrier a total of seven times just three weeks into the new season.
With no official records kept, nothing can be concretely confirmed in terms of any kind of records.
Yet regardless of what has happened before her, the four-straight 40-plus point games at TBI, within a 16-team bracket many coaches were calling the most challenging they had ever seen in the province, was nothing less than a true accomplishment for the ages.
“It’s actually so crazy, like it’s shocking to me,” said Pemberton after Saturday night’s award ceremonies wrapped up on the Centre Court floor. “I have never paid attention to how much I score. I was just trying to do my best. It’s awesome that my team was able to help me. It sucks we lost but we did the best we could today.”
After Pemberton scored her team’s first 19 points, more of her teammates began to get involved.
Kyanna Knodel had seven points, Abby Adams and Avery Sorenson four each, Tia Rowell three points, and Luisa Buonarroti a pair.
And because it’s still so early, you know that the evolution of this season’s Gators is just beginning.
Keys? One for sure will be a further defining of roles within their schematic at both ends of the floor because while Pemberton, perhaps like few others before her in this province, is able to turn chaotic situations into plus plays, there is no end of opportunity for skilled players like Adams, Sorenson and Knodel and others to maximize the ways they not only support Pemberton, but the ways in which they can play off of her to achieve even greater amounts of secondary scoring.
As well, Rowell is as good as they come when it comes to spreading the floor with her three-point shooting prowess.
And about any potential pressure to keep up what for Pemberton is logically a near-impossible pace?
“You can’t control how much you score,” she said flatly. “You can control your energy, how you play on defence and how much you support your teammates.”
THE RIVERSIDE STORY
Last December, Riverside’s 90-79 win over its Poco-based crosstown rivals at Terry Fox in the 2021 TBI girls final captured so perfectly a young team roaring to a championship on what was essentially the adrenalin that comes from taking that first figurative whiff of your own untapped potential.
A year later, in a less artful but no less meaningful way, the more veteran-laden (but still young) Rapids won on something entirely different: Their guile and their mettle.
Considering what may lay ahead on the road in pursuit of what would be the school’s first-ever senior provincial girls hoops title, that is most assuredly not a bad thing from their perspective.
“I thought our kids were gritty tonight,” Riverside head coach Paul Langford said. “Last year at this time we played one of our best games (in the TBI final). When we played Fox that day, our offence was good and everything worked because people didn’t really know anything about us. This game (Saturday)… we struggled. But, by the way, we showed last night (in a Friday semifinal win over Okanagan Mission) that we can play an up-and-down game, and tonight we showed we can play a grind -it-out game. And our kids were good, but we have to learn from this, even though we won.”
And although Langford wasn’t divulging team secrets, a big part of their learning must surely be based around understanding and working towards their potential.
With all that said, perhaps the biggest question answered was just how effective the Rapids were in slowing Pemberton down when they had 6-foot-2 Simon Fraser-bound centre Natalie Curley in the game.
Curley’s presence took away just enough valuable space in the lane that Pemberton’s metronomic offensive consistency within the paint was suddenly challenged.
“She just showed her Rapids jersey,” said Langford proudly of Curley. “She just stood up and did a good job. Natalie is sometimes a shy kid, but she was not so shy today.”
The only issue was the fact that she fought her foul count for the first three quarters of play.
With 3:17 left in the half, she left with her third. Upon her return she picked up number four, yet down the stretch drive of that final quarter brought a level of confidence and discipline which made things just that much tougher for the Gators to get over the top.
“When Nat is on fire, the whole game changes,” said Rapids’ star Grade 11 point guard Avery Sussex who scored a team-high 21 points and averaged 23.5 for the tournament.
It was that kind of internal support which Curley admitted afterwards has helped her turn a new page in her basketball career, stepping into a role of major importance when it comes to defining her team’s ability to win in more than just one way.
“You feel needed and wanted and I think that maybe that is something that I lacked last year,” said Curley, who besides doing her best to slow Pemberton, continues to show her ability to move well without the ball in the half court, to grab rebounds and block shots, and to score the basketball within a growing repertoire of moves.
“Now, this is building my confidence,” she continued of Saturday, a revelatory day in her hoops career. “I know that I am needed and I know need to perform and just be ready. Like, you can’t stop Kiera, but you can try and I have to try and do that because if I am not there with my arms up, she is going right to the hoop. I have to be there.”
Senior Nicole Hughes and Grade 11 Olivia Wheatley are also a part of that front court mix, one which took a severe hit when 5-foot-10 senior Alexis Hart was lost for the season with a knee injury.
And what hasn’t been fully seen is just how high the ceiling is for a pair of Grade 10s on the senior roster by the time the post-season arrives.
The 5-foot-9 guard Jorja Hart is a good part of the way there already, and she was as vital as anyone on the winning team Saturday, supplying help in both the font and backcourts while scoring 16 points.
And then reserve guard Annabelle Neufeld came off the bench and showed no nerves, hitting three triples as part of a 12-point night.
All of that revolved around Sussex, the point guard who through her actions, represents the best parts of a team of many styles.
In fact the respect paid by the Rapids to Pemberton was like the respect the Gators played to Sussex.
That much was apparent by the 12 free throw trips (10-of-12) Sussex earned Saturday en route to those 21 points of hers, and the fact that as the tourney got tougher, she got better.
Sussex scored 26 points in the quarterfinals against Burnaby Central, then 33 in the semifinals against Okanagan Mission.
Put it all together, and one year after announcing itself on the provincial scene with its 2021 TBI title, the Riverside Rapids returned to the Langley Events Centre, this time determined to show that they are indeed getting better with age.
No. 4 OKANAGAN MISSION 87 No. 1 (AA) MULGRAVE 83
LANGLEY — In its first TBI tourney since winning it all in 2019, Kelowna’s Okanagan Mission Huskies were forced to dig their deepest in the final quarter of their final game, and the end result was bigger than even a third-place finish in an event stacked with provincially-ranked teams.
“The girls… I got mad at them at halftime and I have never really gotten that mad before.. and they responded,” said head coach Meghan Faust after her Huskies trailed West Vancouver’s Mulgrave Titans 58-45 near the end of the third quarter before putting together a 17-3 run which not only put them in front 62-61 midway through the fourth quarter, but kept them in position to claim an overtime victory in a contest tied 75-75 after regulation. “Getting into holes seems to be a common thread when we are up against better teams, but the way we are able to dig out of them now shows resilience.
Led by the 23 points of Kanani Coon, OKM capped a four-day run at TBI whose only blemish was a 75-53 semifinal loss to Riverside on Friday. The Huskies opened with a 76-45 win over Triple-A No. 1 R.A. McMath, then won in the quarterfinals 57-49 over Vancouver’s No. 10-ranked Quad-A Sir Winston Churchill Bulldogs.
Faith Hunter scored a further 14 in the win while Presley Hopf added 10.
Eva Ruse scored 25, Jenna Talib and Ava Wilson 20 points each and Lucy Xu 16.
All of that led to the third-place game, one often times tricky to navigate based on the emotions invested in a loss the night before.
“The third-place game is so hard to play because hopes are dashed in that semifinal,” said Faust. “It happened to us last year at provincials, so to come in here hungry for the win especially after going down by (13) points, I am pretty impressed with the girls.”