LANGLEY — At times, Saturday night seemed like the first time they’d all met.
Sure, the two teams knew all the faces standing on the other side from a childhood spent growing up together in the same neighbourhoods, but wow, don’t things just somehow look a little different tonight under all of these bright lights?
And look at all the people. Are they here just to watch us, the girls from Port Coquitlam, play a little basketball?
Yet at other times, in the absolute heat of battle that came on this first Saturday night in March at the Langley Events Centre, within the pressurized atmosphere that is the B.C. senior girls Quad-A championship final, you saw a level of kinship between rivals that had you convinced that the rules of engagement, for a game of this magnitude, had been so absolutely violated.
But it was precisely that intimate knowledge of each other’s strengths and weaknesses and temperaments, that in the end, allowed us as both fans and chroniclers of the game, to witness an instant classic.
After back-to-back-to-back-to-back alternating runs by the two teams, all over the second half of play, the Terry Fox Ravens beat the Riverside Rapids 77-75 for the school’s first-ever senior girls provincial hoops title.
That it came in the fifth meeting of this 2021-22 start-up season, in a city series in which the Rapids had won the first four en route to a near wire-to-wire occupancy of the No. 1 spot in the provincial rankings only deepened the folklore surrounding Saturday’s game, one in which the exclusively-senior Ravens were playing in the memory of fallen teammate Karin Khuong, who lost her life to cancer in October of 2020 at age 16.
In what was a stirring third-quarter run, fuelled by Riverside’s star Grade 10 guard Avery Sussex, the Rapids came from 13 points down (52-39) behind a 14-0 point run to lead 58-56.
Yet the Ravens somehow got their mojo back just in the nick of time, answering with a near-immediate 10-0 run to turn a 66-66 game back into a 76-66 lead.
Then, the senior-laden, 2020 finalist Ravens hunkered down and weathered the storm as the Rapids’ mounted a game-closing 9-1 run which ultimately fell short.
“I think it’s just that we have Grade 12 kids who have kind of been here before,” said Terry Fox coach Teena Frost. “We told them to calm down, that basketball is a game of runs, and they listened to us for the most part.
“Today, we felt a calm at shoot-around,” Frost continued. “These kids have had a belief in themselves since they were 10 and 11, and that comes from Karin. Karin really was with us today. I’m going to start crying. Her belief in herself transcends to these guys, and she was with us. We know she was with us.”
THE X’S AND O’S OF THE HEART
Coming off a performance in which she scored 45 points in Friday’s semifinal win over the Okanagan Mission Huskies, Terry Fox guard Lauren Clements, who added 17 points and 15 rebounds Saturday en route to being named tournament MVP, recalled her team’s title-game mindset just as Riverside’s Sussex was pouring home 11 of her 16 points during that potentially game-changing 14-0 Rapids run.
While Clements spoke to her team’s game plan to “lock up Avery Sussex” to open the game, something they did by holding Riverside’s scoring leader to just two points at the half, her team’s ability to reel in Riverside and reclaim the game’s momentum in the midst of its stretch drive had nothing to do with schematics.
“I think we just remembered that we deserved to be here, and that we were not going to let one player beat us,” she said. “We were going to play as a team and come together as a team because we wanted to win this bad, and for Karin as well.”
Easier said than done if you saw just how Avery Sussex had turned the game on its ear in the third, starting with what might have been the most spectacular hoop of the night.
Sussex, in full flight, froze her defender with a spin move so dynamic, that as she came out of it and went up to the glass for a lay-in, the entire building seemed to go silent.
Yet Terry Fox’s response was the picture of senior-laden steady.
“We lost some momentum and then we just … again, that’s the kind of kids we have,” said Terry Fox head coach Mike Carkner of a fourth quarter comeback in which all five of his starters — Clements (6), Cerys Merton (4), Emily Sussex (4), Ana-Maria Misic (3), Taylor Matthews (2) — accounted for the team’s 19 total points by each scoring between two and six points. “They are gritty. They find a way to win. It wasn’t always pretty, but the defensive intensity picked up and we managed to get a few transition baskets.”
Riverside’s game-closing response fell achingly shy, powered by its senior Venica Davignon who finished with 14 points and 15 rebounds in her final high school game.
The Rapids had called for a time-out at a critical moment during their late run, yet were told that they had already used their allotment.
“Well, coming back takes a lot out of you and it probably took too much out of us,” said Riverside head coach Paul Langford. “You get the lead, and you relax again and Fox wanted it. They also didn’t want to lose to us five times. But I am proud of our kids, their hearts were unreal.”
Afterwards, Fox’s Carkner said it best when he called Saturday night’s re-start season finale “a celebration of basketball in Port Coquitlam.”
That, of course, is a sentiment that can be shared on any of the rare occasions in which a provincial final pits two teams from the same city or neighbouring ones, in the championship game.
Two which come to mind, both boys’ top-tiered finals, are from the 1980s.
Those games — 1984’s Steveston vs. Richmond, and 1989’s Pitt Meadows vs. Maple Ridge — are still talked about with reverence over a generation later.
Saturday’s game is destined to hold the same stature for future generations within the B.C. girls high school basketball world.
And when historians look back on it, they will need to know just how homespun Terry Fox v Riverside actually was.
And so as we inhale deeply on the 2021-22 girls campaign, we exhale with these three diamonds.
1 THE SUSSEX SISTERS
Much has been made, since they faced each other for the first time this season in the finals of the TBI back in December, of the fact that Terry Fox’s Emily Sussex is the Grade 12 sister of Riverside’s Grade 10 Avery Sussex.
They represent, on a night so deeply themed in the game’s familial ties, the ultimate connection between the two teams.
Mom Jodie Sussex and dad Aaron were on hand to watch their daughters, and afterwards, on the floor of the LEC, as the two celebrated, it took a mom’s perspective to bring a heightened sense of what the game, at its core, truly represented.
“I don’t even have words right now,” she said, moments after the entire family embraced. “I am really happy for Terry Fox. It’s their senior year, their last chance at this. They kind of ended it the way they started (with a 2019 B.C. junior title) which is so phenomenal. I know Avery and Riverside… they will be back here again. We are really proud of that team. Proud of the way they played, but I mean, I can’t say enough for Emily’s play tonight (17 points, six rebounds) and her team. They played outstanding. So we’re so happy.”
2 THE TENACITY OF BROOKE KENDAL
At one stage of Saturday’s game, Riverside senior guard Brooke Kendal, who led her team with 21 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, suffered what appeared to be a very nasty ankle injury.
Kendal was clearly hobbled, and when she went to the bench, it would have not been surprising if she didn’t return. But of course, everyone who knows her, including TFSE live stream colour analyst Breanne Watson, predicted she would be back.
She did return, and despite the ankle, played 36 minutes, hitting three treys in the second half.
It was a show of intestinal fortitude that would have pleased her soon-to-be head coach with the Victoria Vikes, because Carrie Watts displayed that same grit through her playing career, including stepping in to take one of the nastiest charges you’re apt to see anywhere in the basketball world during her career with the UBC Thunderbirds.
Yet that is not fully what this part of the story is about.
After Kendal went down, Watson remarked on the broadcast that Terry Fox guard Cerys Merton was genuinely worried about Kendal, and that for that split second, in the biggest game of both of their careers, Merton focused her concern in the fallen player’s direction.
3 YOU WILL NEVER SEE THIS AGAIN
Wish I had had my camera ready.
With the Rapids trailing the Ravens 40-33 at the half, and Avery Sussex shockingly held to just two points by Terry Fox, the guard headed to her team’s halftime locker room.
But before she got there, as she approached the Ravens’ bench, she made eye contact with Terry Fox coach Mike Carkner.
Sussex smiled, and incredulously stopped and had a chat with the opposition boss for about 30 seconds at halftime of the championship game.
When the two teams returned for the start of the second half, Carkner came clean on the conversation.
“She asked me ‘Hey, can I get a little room out there?’” laughed Carkner. “And I said to her ‘Absolutely not and if you do start to get any room, then I am subbing in against you on defence.’”
“This whole year, it has been a great experience and I am excited for next year already,” Avery Sussex said. “I am looking at two more years to win it.”
In the natural process of all things, that is the most tried and true path to the title.
But as the MVP Lauren Clements reminds, there are no rules in a sport ruled by heart.
“I was a little surprised that we got into the semifinals because before the provincials, we were mentally down and we weren’t playing as a team,” she said, moments after hoisting the MVP trophy to the cheers of her teammates while looking ahead to a university career with the Fraser Valley Cascades.
“We just weren’t enjoying the game, but when it came to provincials, we just started to get that energy up and I think it was the crowd that helped us as. They brought our energy up
“For us, it was just like a switch in your head that you just turn on.”
Like flicking on the brightest lights, and inviting everyone you know.. all to watch the girls from Port Coquitlam play a game of basketball.
Special nights like these will never be forgotten.
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