No. 1 ST. PATRICK’S 91 No. 2 DOVER BAY 80
BY HOWARD TSUMURA
LANGLEY — Good basketball coaches know a good basketball team when they see one, and the second Nap Santos laid eyes on the Dover Bay Dolphins, he knew that somewhere along every defending champion’s perilous road to a repeat title, his team would have to go through the long, lean and lanky pod from Nanaimo.
Santos’ team, of course, are the sprint-and-spray St. Patrick’s Celtics, and of all the thoroughbreds who lined up behind the starting gates for the start of the the B.C. senior boys Triple-A championships on Wednesday, none had the ability to break fast and carry wire-to-wire tempo better than the East Vancouver team which was attempting to defend it’s blue-ribbon, winner’s circle status.
Yet as he himself would admit in the aftermath of a hard-fought 11-point victory before a sold-out, record-breaking crowd at the Langley Event Centre’s showcase Arena Bowl late Saturday afternoon, he had too much respect for the Dolphins to simply assume his team’s speed could carry the day.
And thus in the back of his mind rose the idea that in order for his team to become the first school to earn a repeat title in B.C. Triple-A’s new four-tiered era, his Celtics would have to be able to morph from top-tempo transition to a mentality more akin to the actions of half-court lob, lean and lay-up.
“They were awesome,” Santos admitted afterwards of Dover Bay’s ability to match his team’s pace back down the floor and not fall victim to the Celtics’ gold-standard fast-break attack. “They ran back. They sprinted.”
It’s why, despite their incredibly bad early luck, the Dolphins entered the fourth quarter trailing by only a nose at 68-65.
But it’s also why, in the practices leading up to provincials, that Santos took the time drill his team on the more chess-like aspects of its playbook.
“We did work on our halfcourt sets… we did work on it a lot,” he said. “We knew we were going to play them in the finals, so we worked on our half-court sets, and pick-and-(roll).”
PLAYING HIS TOUGHEST HAND
If you leaned a curious ear into the courtside chat sessions this week, perhaps the most common narrative among coaches, officials and all-star selection committees of all tiers went somethign like this: “Hey, how about that kid from Dover Bay. Man, have they got a player.”
Indeed, Luke Linder, the lithe and lethal 6-foot-4 senior shooting guard was a rarity… a player every bit as good as the mobs of grey-haired hoops junkies declared him to be.
In an 83-76 quarterfinals win Thursday against Abbotsford’s MEI Eagles, he put up a 49-point performance which he later informed VL reporter Dan Kinvig was the third such voluminous outpouring of his high school career.
In Friday’s 91-59 semifinal win over the North Delta Huskies, he scored another 42 points, all of which combined, made him — with a 45.5-ppg average over two marquee championship-round games — a marked man coming into a title tilt.
Yet if you’re a frequent reader of this ink-stained hoops scribe, you know all about my pre-occupation with the basketball gods, that some-say-‘mythical’ horde which oversees the luck of the bounce, the give in the rims and, unfortunately, the timing of injuries.
On Saturday, not two minutes into the championship game, Luke Linder went down in a heap, the suddeness of which put a grimace on his face which was downright ominous.
Helped up off the floor and to the bench by teammates with just two points to his name, he tried his best to pretend that his right ankle wasn’t the source of excruciating pain.
It looked like he was done for the day… before he had even broken a sweat.
And although he somehow miraculously returned, the abandon with which he wanted to bring to the final game of his high school career was simply no longer available.
That he played, so noticeably hobbled, simply verified what championship games mean to those who pursue excellence.
And that he would return a second time after taking an even more painful second hit to the same right ankle not too long afterwards, put an exclamation point on the obvious.
“It just kind of sums up his heart,” Dover Bay head coach Darren Seaman said afterwards, noticeably shaken himself and clearly aching for the heartbreak his player was having to endure. “Our team motto is… like we just work through whatever is going on. He just … Sorry. I don’t have words right now.”
Asked if it tore at his insides to see a player who had worked so hard to arrive at the high school game’s highest stage, and then in what was the final game of his Dover Bay career suffer such an untimely fate, Seaman took a long pause.
“Yeah, so unfortunate… that early in the game for something like that to happen.
“He stepped on someone’s foot,” explained Seaman of how Linder’s ankle rolled. “And then it got stepped on later. Sorry… I don’t have any words right now.”
The best championship games are seem somehow more fully complete when their narrative reaches outside of the lines, fusing with plot lines sure to touch the deepest emotional parts of ourselves.
In Dover Bay’s case, it was about the bond of blood brothers.
Not minutes after Luke Linder had retired to the bench the first time, play resumed with his Grade 10 brother, starting 6-foot-6 point guard Frank Linder, realizing he needed to become his older brother as fast as you could say “Now.”
So Frank Linder proceeded to score 11 points in the first quarter, part of a display which confirmed he is ready to steer the Dover Bay ship come next season.
Yet as mentioned, Luke Linder did return.
His movement severely limited, he summoned his guile to the fore, and despite having virtually no ability to put a base under his shot, he willed a further 20 points from a severely compromised skill set, finishing his high school career by fittingly matching his baby brother with a torch-passing, team co-high of 22 points.
Callum Walker and Oyama Crouch each scored nine points, Matthew Cote added seven, Hudson Trood five and Jack Benjamin another three.
HE JUST HAD A FEELING
As in life, the coaches and players themselves all cop to the fact that they play this game at the fate of the basketball gods.
Last season, as St. Pats battled its way to its first-ever Triple-A title, it lost its speed-merchant lead guard Kaden Carrion to a broken leg midway through the provincials.
And in an emotion-filled final, it came through with a win over Surrey’s Elgin Park Orcas to claim the title.
One year later, Carrion was back and thriving, scoring 10 points in Saturday’s final en route to being named a tournament first-team all-star.
Irish Coquia, the team’s most gifted player and the hammer on the Celtics’ fast break, earned his second straight MVP award, scoring 19 of his 30 points in the opening half.
And then there was Jovin Sunner.
As the fourth quarter began on Saturday, Luke Linder was, against the odds, getting stronger as the game progressed.
Since his return from the ankle sprain, he had scored 14 points between the second and third quarters.
And Dover Bay, its rhythm now seemingly reclaimed, trailed just 68-65 heading into the fourth quarter.
“(He had) crazy fight,” Santos said of Linder. “Like, him coming back after whatever happened to his ankle? Oh, he’s got a lot of heart. In the end we just showed more.”
What was the difference going to end up being?
A 6-foot-3 Grade 11 swingman named Jovin Sunner, who if you came in having never seen the Celtics before, would never have picked him out of a pre-game lay-up line as the guy with stretch-drive man of the hour potential.
Yet while playing off of the towering strength down low of his senior teammate, the fire-plug tough 6-foot-4 Joey Panghulan, Sunner wound up being the title tilt’s ‘X’ factor, that player which allowed his team to play against its usual form when its 11th-hour stage so demanded.
In his first stretch of dominance, he scored 11 straight points over a pivotal 3:07 span between the third and fourth quarters, the first coming off a perfectly placed lob into the deep paint for a reverse lay-in against the Dover Bay zone.
“We knew that they were playing a high 2-3,” Santos said later of the Dolphins’ zone schematic, one which takes on an eye-popping air of intimidation when you see its actual wingspan up close and personal. “And we knew that lob was open. We worked on it, and all year long we knew that was going to be open.”
That first wave of success managed to keep the Celtics’ two-possession lead in tact, and once they began to lean on it, it allowed both Coquia and Carrion to hit three-pointers over it.
Sunner even responded with a second stretch of success, this one allowing for the separation which allowed St. Patricks to twice take 10-point leads over the final 1:36 of play.
His string of nine straight points included a trey that made it 88-78 and a lay-up which made it 90-80.
“He stepped up, but it was his time, also,” said Santos of a player who becomes an even more vital go-to part of the team’s three-peat bid next season. “He was the one. He’s athletic… super-athletic and he can shoot.
“He’s been working, putting in a lot of work and it’s just awesome. I am just so proud of him.”
Panghulan was also pivotal, the presence of the 6-foot-4 bruiser as a true space eater with touch too essential to ever disregard.
He scored 11 of his 19 in the second half, as together the quartet of Coquia, Sunner, Panghulan and Carrion scored 89 of the team’s 91 points.
The Celtics’ final two points where scored by Luke and Frank Linder’s cousin John Linder. Yeah, he plays for the other teams.
And Luke and Frank’s Grade 8 brother Joe Linder also saw the floor Saturday, putting four family members on the court in the B.C. title game.
Next season, the Celtics get to work on the aforementioned threepeat bid, bolstered by yet another infusion of talent — including the likes of Jakobi Metabalos, and Daniel Geppert and Riley Santa Juana — from its B.C. junior Final 8 team.
It’s all part of a chain of success for the program, one which Santos says is as healthy as its ever been.
“Our Grade 8s won the provincials, so we’re going to be good for a long time,” he said on a day in which three of the four senior varsity titles went to school’s from the Vancouver Sea-to-Sky zone. “But we still have to keep working.”
In some form or another, the basketball gods touch us all. Success comes to those who keep taking their forward steps.
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