LANGLEY — Take a day to ponder what was in all likelihood one of the most dominant four-day runs in top-tiered B.C. boys high school basketball history, and you come to the realization that the 2022-23 Semiahmoo Thunderbirds have to be counted among the greatest champs in the event’s 77-year history.
With too many gaping holes in the statistical oeuvre of B.C. schoolboy hoops to ever mount even an semi-respectable analytic study, you’re left with nothing more than some basic numbers and the good, old-fashioned eye-test with which to base your conclusions.
Having said all of that, spend 40 years as a basketball writer and I think you earn the right to put, at the very least, a handful of team in the trusty, old bucket you reserve for bringing home the best clams.
Today, that’s where I’ll start with these Thunderbirds, who entered play this past Wednesday as the No. 1 seed, but perhaps not the team that I thought would be as flat-out invincible as they were all week at the Langley Events Centre.
Yet after Saturday’s dominant 71-40 championship win over the Surrey’s Fleetwood Park Dragons before a , the No. 6 seeds who had beaten both No. 3 Vancouver College and No. 2 Oak Bay to arrive at the final, all Semiahmoo did was win by 31 points.
When you factor in its other wins over Mt. Baker (+64), Terry Fox (+33), and Kelowna (+28), the Thunderbirds won by an average margin of 39 points.
And as offensively effective as the Grade 11 duo of point guard Torian Lee and forward Cole Bekkering are as part of what is a talented, role-defined eight-man rotation, it’s the team’s level of buy-in on the defensive end which earns them comparisons here with some of the past greats of the last five decades or so.
Observing the traits which helped make the Thunderbirds a boys varsity champ for the first time in school history, TFSETV.ca analyst and veteran coach Paul Eberhardt boiled it down to its essence during Saturday’s broadcast.
“They just don’t get beat off the dribble,” he explained. “They are big in terms of their size. And they help and they rotate so well.”
DEFINED BY THEIR DEFENCE
Just over a week ago, the same two teams met at Semiahmoo Secondary in the South Fraser zone championship final, a game the Thunderbirds won by 26 points (82-56).
Not only was the margin of defeat eerily similar to B.C. title game, so was the way it all went down.
“It was kind of a carbon copy,” said Dragons head coach Nick Day. “We were toe-to-toe with them for the first bit, then late in the first half, they went on a run similar to today.
“It starts with turnovers,” he continued. “If you don’t take care of the ball against this team, they are so athletic they will punish you.”
Fleetwood Park was living up to its end of the bargain as the second quarter began to wind down to halftime.
Semiahmoo had started out shooting 1-for-10 from beyond the three-point arc and was trying to find sustainable answers while nursing a slim 27-20 lead.
But then that defence started to find its legs, and once it began generating live ball turnovers and cashing them into points, the entire operation came to life.
“It’s our defence,” said senior post Marcus Flores, later selected as a B.C. tournament second-team all-star, referencing Semiahmoo’s 22-1 run over a span of just 4:32 between the late second and early third quarter which turned that aforementioned 27-20 lead into a 49-23 advantage.
The only point the Dragons scored over that span was a free throw 43 seconds into the third quarter by Eesher Sarai.
Lee got it started with a three-pointer, Bekkering then turned his own live ball steal off Aaron Uppal into a coast-to-coast lay-in.
Lee then then turned a long rebound off a three-point miss by Sarai into another floor-length drive for a lay-in.
Guard Jodhan Waraich then made a steal and fed Bekkering for a lay-in as part of a first-half-closing 9-0 run.
That energy picked right up to start the third quarter as the Thunderbirds, at one stag riding a 13-1 run to start the second half, hit back-to-back-to-back threes, the first by Lee and the next two by Bekkering.
“Our defence translates right to offence,” added Flores. “Tonight we’d get stops and go right through into our transition breaks. Getting all those steals gets us easy offence and it all starts with our defence. Today, the boys played amazing.”
ARE THEY ONE OF B.C.’S BEST EVER?
So just how good were the Thunderbirds at these 2023 championships?
At the risk of inflaming the entire nation of B.C. high school basketball die-hards who remain ever true to their own school or protect any certain era of play above all others, I was curious to see where Semiahmoo’s 39.0 point average margin of victory stood against the acknowledged greatest teams in the history of the B.C. championships.
Prior to the event’s 75th anniversary tournament in 2020, Varsity Letters hosted a 64-school, all-time bracket.
A select committee of coaches and officials (I stayed a million miles away from having any input) then seeded the entire bracket (all of whom are former B.C. championship winners), determining the fantasy winners each week until Nanaimo 1978 beat Richmond 1988 to become the No. 1 team. In a poll taken 10 years earlier, Richmond 1988 was picked No. 1.
The rest of the Final 8 teams selected were, in chronological order: Centennial 1972, North Surrey 1976, Duchess Park 1980, Abbotsford 1983, Terry Fox 1993 and Kelowna 2016.
I tallied up each of those eight schools actual average margin of victory at the tournament, then added two other former B.C. champions to the mix for the following reasons:
St. Michaels University School Blue Devils 1992 — Broadcast partner Eberhardt remembered, as did I, just how dominant Steve Nash’s team was that season.
Richmond Colts 1987 — The predecessor of the famed ’88 squad, this team very closely resembles the 2023 Semiahmoo squad because their largely Grade 11 cores are large and led by superstar talent.
Below is how Semiahmoo stands in average margin of victory at the B.C. tournament against these 10 other select teams.
1 Semiahmoo Thunderbirds 2023 (39.0)
2 Terry Fox Ravens 1993 (33.3)*
3 Richmond Colts 1988 (32.5)*
4 SMUS Blue Devils 1992 (32.0)
5-tie Kelowna Owls 2016 (25.8)*
5-tie Nanaimo Islanders 1978 (25.8)*
7 Abbotsford Panthers 1983 (24.8)*
8 Centennial Centaurs 1972 (22.5)*
9 Duchess Park Condors 1980 (19.5)*
10 Richmond Colts 1987 (15.3)
11 North Surrey 1976 (10.8)*
(Note — * indicates picked as one of the top eight B.C. high school teams in 2020 75th anniversary fantasy bracket)
Please recognize that I am smart enough to realize that average margin of victory at the provincials, in a vacuum, is not a stand-alone way to predict any team’s greatness, and remember, there’s also 66 other top-tiered champions that can have a say in this matter.
Yet by the same token, a lower winning percentage can’t simply be brushed off as said team having played in a much stronger overall year.
The strength of an opening-round foe can always make a huge difference, of course, but so can playing a complete regular season and earning the benefits that come with a No. 1 seed.
Somewhere in the midst of all of this is an area of commonality, and the betting money here says the 2023 Thunderbirds need to be in every conversation.
No one is claiming any kind of universal truth here. We’re simply saying that a 39-point average margin of victory in any decade or any era is something that can not be ignored. And for those who witnessed it all over the past four days, Semiahmoo was as business-like a juggernaut as the very best teams.
DEFENSIVE BLOOD LINES
Semiahmoo head coach Les Brown moved into the head coach’s chair this season after the program’s most current architect, longtime former head coach Ed Lefurgy, elected to step down after leading the Totems to a pair of B.C. title games, including last season’s 72-57 loss to Burnaby South.
To know Brown’s history as a player (at Richmond High) and a coach, is know that he is a disciple of defence.
“I played for Glenn Kishi (at former Richmond junior powerhouse R.C. Palmer), I played for Bill Disbrow (at Richmond) and then I worked for Kevin Hanson (as an assistant coach) at UBC,” said Brown after Saturday’s win, “and you had to preach toughness. You had to get stops. Your shots are not always going to go in, so you have to be tougher than your opponent.”
It’s a simple formula, but coaches know it requires pure belief and hellish practices to become a dyed-in-the-wool habit.
Proof of it’s buy-in, however, is easy to hear when you talk with Semiahmoo players who, in the moments after winning a B.C. title, were more excited to talk about stopping the Dragons than scoring on them.
“I always feel like I put it all out there on the floor every day,” said Semiahmoo guard Andre Juco, the Grade 11 guard chosen the tournament’s Best Defensive Player.
“Every time you go out there you can make a difference on every play,” he added. “Whether it’s an offensive or a defensive rebound, or getting a box out so that your teammate can get a rebound, it doesn’t matter.”
Guard Jodhan Waraich, who was credited with a co-game-high six steals Saturday says he is especially cognizant of maintaining a ball’s live status after a steal for the simple reason that the pace of such a change of possession is something no defence is ready to cope with.
“What is more important than the steal is to maintain possession after that steal,” he said. “Keeping possession in the second half tonight is what enabled us to keep our lead.”
Throughout the tournament, Semiahmoo’s margin of victory was such that it appeared that they had never been pushed in any of its games heading into the final.
Could it be their downfall against a Fleetwood Park team which came into the final having beaten the No. 3 seeds (Vancouver College) and the No. 2 seeds (Oak Bay).
Moments after being named tournament MVP, guard Lee characterized his team’s first three games as vital pieces in the overall championship puzzle.
“I don’t think the scores were indicative of how challenging the games were,” said Lee, whose championship game box score line read 18 points, nine rebounds and five assists. “Although there was a large difference we still had to work for those wins. It showed they were good teams because we had to bring our best to beat them.”
And quite remarkably, that is what they did in Saturday’s win over Fleetwood Park.
“They have great defensive activity in the half court,” Fleetwood Park’s Day added of the Thunderbirds. “And when they get their hands on the ball, and they get out and run, they are the best team in the province.
“You have to play a near-perfect game to have a shot.”
Bekkering, behind a 26-point, 12 rebound effort, was a big part of Semiahmoo’s perfection, both on Saturday and over the course of the season.
And he also made a point of saying “No predictions” when asked about the potential of a 2023-24 repeat bid with so many of the same group set to return. His eventual answer, however, seemed to come about as close as you could get.
“Next year is still our year,” he said. “It’s still Semiahmoo’s.”
GAME NOTES — Grade 11 forward Jack Clayton had nine points and six rebounds off the bench for the winners. Juco had eight points, eight rebounds and two steals. Waraich had, in addition to his six steals, had five rebounds and three assists… Point guard Inder Deol led the the Dragons with 15 points, while forward Eesher Sarai had seven points, nine rebounds and two blocks.
ALL STARS AND AWARD WINNERS
MVP — Torian Lee (Semiahmoo)
Best Defensive Player — Andre Juco (Semiahmoo)
First All-Star team: Cole Bekkering (Semiahmoo), Aaron Uppal (Fleetwood Park), Nash Semeniuk (Kelowna), Adam Olsen (Elgin Park), Griffin Arnatt (Oak Bay).
Second All-Star team: Andre Juco (Semiahmoo), Marcus Flores (Semiahmoo), Izaec Oppal (Fleetwood
Park), Hayden Sansalone (Abbotsford), Mikyle Malabuyoc (Vancouver College).
Most Inspirational Player — Walker Sodaro (Kelowna)
Most Inspirational Team — Kelowna Owls
Most Sportsmanlike Team — Fleetwood Park
School Sprit award — Fleetwood Park
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