LANGLEY — Sasha Vujisic walked into his team’s halftime locker room Saturday night at the Langley Events Centre and had a little talk with himself.
“The truth is, I was just playing bad,” said Vujisic, Burnaby South’s 6-foot-10 senior forward in self-critique of the opening half of the final game of his high school basketball career.
Considering that all of this was happening on the occasion of the title game of the 75th annual B.C. senior boys high school championships, and that his No. 1-seeded Rebels, while leading 31-24 at intermission, were hardly in control of the No. 3-seeded Kelowna Owls.
Maybe, thought, it was time for him to flip the script.
So after shooting just 1-for-7 from the field in the first half for two points, Vujisic took action.
On his very first touch of the second half, he took a feed and layed down a vicious, rim-rocking dunk.
On his second touch, he put the ball on the deck, power-dribbling to the rack for a lay-up.
Then on his third touch, he grabbed an offensive rebound and finished with a put-back lay-in.
Within a span of 94 seconds, he had gone 3-for-3 with authority, establishing on a night in which the Owls guard-based shooting game never got past tepid on the thermometre, that his stature, his physicality and most of all his mindset, would indeed wind up on the night being the difference between the two programs, who since 2016, have set the bar for excellence at the province’s largest Quad-A tier.
Final score; Burnaby South 70 Kelowna 58.
“I guess it was a mental thing,” Vujisic continued amidst the same kind of post-game frenzy the Rebels revelled in 104 weeks ago when they topped the Semiahmoo Totems to capture the 2018 crown.
“At halftime, I cleared my head and I realized that I had to do whatever it took to put the ball through the hoop because that is what the coaches wanted me to do,” said Vujisic, who finished with 15 points and 20 rebounds, but more than anything, enabled Burnaby South to be their expansive inside-out selves on offence, and their space-eating, rim-protecting best on defence.
And all of this from a young man who suffered a leg fracture during the offseason and wasn’t able to join his team in games until January, and who in 2019, suffered an injury which knocked him out of the lineup for the provincial semifinals, a 75-64 loss to eventual champion Lord Tweedsmuir.
There was, of course, so much more on Saturday to the Rebels’ second title in three seasons.
Grade 11 point guard Justin Sunga, the day-in, day-out conscience of the team throughout its four-day, four-win run here at the 2020 B.C.’s, was once again also its engine.
The 5-foot-10 Sunga broke pressure, managed tempo, never wasted his free throw trips, hit threes, got steals, and dished dimes.
Then, during the post-game award ceremonies, as teammates Jareb Pineda and Vujisic were named to respective B.C. second and first all-star teams, and Emir Krupic, who poured home a team-high 17 points and grabbed nine rebounds, was named Player of the Game, it became clear who the tournament’s deserving MVP was going to be.
And in keeping with his character, once it was made official, Sunga got up, either slapped palms or shook hands with every one of his teammates and then embraced his coaches with hugs before finally accepting the grand, gold-encrusted goblet once hugged and hoisted by the likes of Lars Hansen, Steve Nash, Kelly Olynyk and Rob Sacre.
“I’ve just got to show love where love is given, right?” said Sunga. “I am not a selfish person. I appreciate everyone on my team. They all trust me with the ball and I have to deliver.”
Added coach Bell: “He’s amazing. He’s always played up. As a Grade 2 he was playing with the Grade 7s, just wherever his brother (Vince) was, and now they are both champions. They played box-and-one on him the last two nights and he just blew by them like they weren’t even there.”
Offensively for Kelowna, Hunter Simson led Kelowna with 14 points while Jonathon Haughton added 10.
Which brings us to the Owls.
Built into their team DNA is a belief system that they accept the fate of the basketball gods when it comes to their three-point shooting game.
They of course hone it and own it like no other team, yet on Saturday, despite a 10-man rotation all capable of lighting up the airwaves, the parade of daggers just never consistently found the mark.
Kelowna shot 2-of-15 from distance over the first quarter and were just marginally better the rest of the way, finishing 12-of-47 on the night.
“The game played out like we thought it would,” Kelowna head coach Harry Parmar said, “but we just didn’t hit shots. Giving them 70 points? I am happy with that. We had some costly turnovers, and we didn’t defensive-rebound, but we just didn’t shoot the ball like we needed to.
“But I can live with it,” Parmar added. “What can you do? Burnaby South is just a team that loves to pound it inside, and we just had to hit a couple more threes.”
Ask Bell about Kelowna’s lack of three-point shooting success, and the Rebels’ head coach speaks from experience as the coach of a team which beat them in three of four meeting this season.
“We do a pretty good job of chasing people off the line,” Bell said, “and I think that is what others didn’t do against them.”
It was obvious how seriously Bell and the coaching staff took Kelowna’s prowess from distance when he started to quote all of the Owls’ three-point shooting numbers from its 84-54 semifinal win Friday over Handsworth just minutes after Rebels fans stormed the LEC court and ‘We Are The Champions’ blared for all to hear.
“They took 91 shots, and 56 of those were threes,” Bell said. “I haven’t seen the stats yet, but I am going to think that it’s not near those numbers tonight.”
He was right.
On Saturday, as mentioned, Kelowna took 71 shots, 47 of which were threes.
Yet the stat that jumped all over you when scanning the final box?
Burnaby South outscored Kelowna 46-6 in the points-in-the-paint category.
It’s an astounding stat in the three-point era.
It’s also an homage to the 13 points scored by the Rebels’ post-in-waiting Grade 10 Karan Aujla, who carries the torch for two seasons beginning next season, just as Vujisic did for two seasons following the graduation of 2018 MVP Jusuf Sehic.
But above all, Saturday night was about what Sasha Vujisic, in his final high school basketball game, has truly meant to the championship run of the Burnaby South Rebels.
“I got on him a little at halftime for a few mistakes,” admitted Bell with a proud smile. “He responded. He went in and he was a terror. When he gets mad, you don’t want to get in his way.”
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