RICHMOND — The game’s stretch drive took the stretch out Burnaby’s Byrne Creek Bulldogs, yet even without the enviable length and wing-span provided by two if its most dynamic players, B.C.’s No. 1-ranked senior boys Triple A basketball team found a way to repeat as Lower Mainland AAA champs Friday at the Richmond Olympic Oval.
“I really believe in our entire team,” said Byrne Creek head coach Bal Dhillon after his Dawgs lost the services of forward Majok Deng and guard Bithow Wan at key junctures of the fourth quarter but still managed to top Richmond’s R.A. McMath Wildcats 73-63 and take the Mainland’s No. 1 seed into the B.C. championships next month at the Langley Events Centre.
“Aaron Cruz made some big shots to seal the deal, Daniel Cion had three blocks late, and Tyril Whitebear was also huge,” Dhillon continued of an unsung triumvirate of Bulldogs, the latter coming in for Deng and getting both a huge block and drawing a key charge.
“I love all my guys and I would have loved to have had the two of them but it doesn’t always work out the way you want,” continued Dhillon who lost Wan to an ejection and Deng to fouls over a span of four minutes.
Of course it took perhaps the best game of the season from senior guard Martin Djunga to make it happen.
Djunga, who finished with a game-high 29 points, was most incredible in the latter stages of the third quarter, where over a span of just 1:57, he scored nine straight points, the first five coming on 5-of-6 shooting from the stripe, the next two coming off an offensive rebound and the last two from the game’s most spectacular play. Djunga intuitively jumped into the passing lane and turned a 60-foot sprint into an uncontested fast-break lay-in for what would prove to be an impenetrable 60-44 lead.
McMath called for time and retrenched, yet its subsequent 16-8 run would get them only as close as 68-60 with just under three minutes remaining.
“Shaun and I were talking right before about how we had to prevent them from going on a run,” said Dhillon of he and assistant Shaun Hake’s discussion just prior to Djunga’s outburst. “But when you have a player like Martin on the floor, you are capable doing anything at any time. That’s not coaching on display. That’s all his talent.”
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The Bulldogs had dialled down the intensity of its myriad of zone presses over the past few games, but on Friday made a conscious decision to ramp it back up, despite the potential dangers.
“Their guards are big and you take a chance pressing a team that good, patient and skilled,” added Dhillon.
McMath opened the game on a 5-0 run but Djunga scored the first two baskets of Byrne Creek’s definitive answer, a 13-0 run over a span of 2:50.
The Wildcats kept the game within shouting the distance the rest of the way behind the dual 17-point performances of senior guards Bryce Mason and Jordin Kojima.
Rohan Balaggan hit four treys en route to a 16-point evening in the loss, while post Victor Radocaj scored eight points and was a true paint presence with 11 blocks.
Natrone Gonzales had two points and Alex Murphy three.
For the Bulldogs, Djunga’s offensive support came from a balanced rotation.
Den had 11 points, Cruz and Wan 10 each, point guard Sufi Ahemd nine and Whitebear four.
When asked about repeating as Mainland champs, Dhillon stressed that each season, teams take on different characteristics and that to begin 2017-18, his squad ran into some early trouble when they tried to be last season’s team.
“The beginning of our season was a reminder,” said Dhillon, whose team began 1-5. “We had to wake up and realize that this was a new season.”
Both Vancouver’s Sir Charles Tupper Tigers and the Richmond Colts have also qualified for the provincial tourney.
The Tigers go in as the No. 3 seed after their 92-75 win over the Colts earlier today.
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