By Gary Ahuja (Special for Varsity Letters)
LANGLEY — An all-Kelowna championship battle is on the horizon, but a Vancouver and Victoria squad have every intention of making sure its them going for gold on Saturday morning instead.
Regardless of what happens in either semifinal, one of the four remaining schools will capture their program’s first-ever BC Junior Girls Provincial Invitational Tournament banner.
The number one seeded Kelowna’s Dr. Knox Falcons face the No. 5 Sir Winston Churchill Bulldogs of Vancouver at 3:00 p.m. while semifinal number two pits the second seed Kelowna Owls against Victoria’s St. Michaels University School Blue Jags, the tournament’s third seed. Both games will be played at the Langley Events Centre.
This will be a best-ever finish for three of the schools involved as in the 39-year history of the tournament, neither the Falcons nor the Bulldogs have ever managed to crack the top eight. The Blue Jags did finish sixth, but that was way back in 1996.
The Owls, on the other hand, have one of the province’s premier basketball programs (at all levels) with the junior girls especially always knocking on the door. In the past five years, the team has two silver medals (2017 and 2019) and a pair of bronze medals (2015 and 2016) as they chase that elusive first junior girls title in program history.
After the 24 teams played on Wednesday, they were shifted into three separate eight-team brackets: the Championship Bracket, the Showcase Bracket and the Rivalry Bracket.
Thursday saw all eight teams in the Championship Bracket play their quarter-final games at R.E. Mountain Secondary.
Kelowna set the tone early in their clash with the Walnut Grove Gators, using a 22-7 advantage in the first quarter to enjoy a double-digit lead for the rest of the contest for the 68-25 victory.
Denae Skelton and Phoebe Molgat led Kelowna with 17 and 15 points, respectively. Walnut Grove’s Hope Nystrom led her team with 14.
Kelowna coach Robin Espenberg said his team suffered through some injuries during the zone playoffs but is back to full health and that showed with how they were able to play against Walnut Grove.
“I am thrilled with how the girls played today. Just attacking the whole game, aggressive defensively, going to the basket, sharing the ball, moving it, scoring inside, outside,” he raved. “It was just a really balanced game all around.”
Their opponent in the semifinal round will be the St. Michaels University Blue Jags who defeated the Heritage Woods Kodiaks 59-44.
The excitement on the Blue Jags players faces showed just how much this meant to the team as the wandered over to the Langley Events Centre studio for the tradition of doing their video headshots for the semifinal round.
“We are super excited: first time in school history to make the final four,” said coach Lindsay Brooke, who was pulling double-duty as she left immediately from the quarter-final contest to go coach the SMUS Grade 8 team. “It is a young squad (and) we are excited.”
Only three of the team’s 10 players are in Grade 10.
While Brooke knew there was talent on the roster, it was early in the New Year when she began to feel this was as a squad with a shot after two impressive showings in January.
“We had a good measuring stick at Riverside and then we won the PQT Tournament,” Brooke recalled. “I think (we knew this) was realistic after those two results.”
As for the team’s quarter-final clash with No. 6 Heritage Woods, Brooke was impressed with her team’s resolve against a quality opponent.
“Credit to Heritage Woods: they played an up-tempo game, tried to force the tempo and we played with poise and patience,” the coach said.
The top half of the draw saw Dr. Knox advance after getting a big test from Abbotsford’s M.E.I. Eagles, the No. 8 seed.
The score was tied at 42 in the fourth quarter, but three straight buckets gave the Ravens a lead they would not relinquish in the 58-49 victory. Reegan Bond’s 21 points led the team with Ryenn Schutz chipping in 13. The Eagles received 17 points from Sidney Giesbrecht and a dozen from Annika Hildebrand.
“They are a really special group of athletes and they have grit and resiliency. My usual saying is one possession at a time, one quarter at a time’ so we really focus on what we do best and use our high-low against that zone and we got #7 (Ryeen Schutz) loose and we got the looks that we wanted,” said Falcons coach Lisa Nickle.
Next up for the Falcons is the Sir Winston Churchill Bulldogs, who were 50-48 winners over the No. 4 Brookswood Bobcats of Langley. The Bulldogs never trailed as the Bobcats continuously clawed to keep themselves in the fight.
Brookswood had a shot at forcing overtime and got a look but could not convert on the jumper to fall two points short.
“Down the stretch we rebounded very well, that was the one consistent thing. We were a little bit bigger than them. We closed it down on the defensive boards that was the only reason we won. Brookswood played unbelievable defence and they got open shots. The shots that they missed, we didn’t give them second looks,” said Churchill coach Simon Dykstra.
Claire Huang had 13 points and Marah Dykstra scored 11 for Churchill. Brookswood was led by Imaan Lali’s 16 points and 15 from Celia Sierra.
Churchill is attempting to duplicate the feat of its junior boys team and advance to the championship final. The Churchill boys team wound up second earlier this week at the Junior Boys Basketball Provincial Invitational Tournament.
“In Vancouver you have a lot of have-not programs and for us to have two teams in the final four at the junior level it shows that we are doing some things right,” Dykstra said.
(The scoresheet for the St. Michaels University School/Heritage Woods game was unavailable.)