LANGLEY — If you’ve watched Riverside Rapids’ point guard Avery Sussex for any amount of time over her senior varsity basketball career, you can’t help but be struck by the level of versatility and adaptability she brings to the fore as her team’s feisty point guard.
And at no time over her career has that versatility been more obvious than on Friday night, in the second of two B.C. Quad-A Final Four clashes at the Langley Events Centre.
Sluggish, flat, and seemingly stuck in mud over the opening half of play against its new zone arch rivals from Burnaby Central, the Rapids were dominated by the Wildcats for huge stretches yet somehow managed to take a 31-29 lead into the half.
Remember, all of this was happening against the same Wildcats team which in the middle of February threw what everyone knew would be a wrench into the process of seeding the provincial draw by beating Riverside 74-61 in the Fraser North zone championship game.
Yet as Rapids’ co-coach Jeremy Neufeld re-watched that game on film, he noticed one play which would not end up on the figurative cutting room floor because it worked to perfection.
He filed it away as the team went about its preparations for March Madness.
Then on Friday, in the second half, just when his team needed it most, he took it out of his back pocket and turned the game on its ear.
Running the 5-foot-7 point guard Sussex into the deep paint, essentially swapping her with the team’s eqaully versatile 6-foot-2 senior pivot Natalie Curley, to take advantage of Sussex’s strength, footwork and scoring touch from a post-up position against the Wildcats’ smaller guards.
It worked like a charm. So much so that interspersed through the third quarter and even into the fourth, it proved to be the tipping point the Rapids employed to go on a 23-6 run en route to a 12-point win, and a berth in tonight’s 8 p.m. championship final (TFSETV.ca) against the Walnut Grove Gators.
“We ran it once against them and it worked, but really, we didn’t play well in that last game,” said Sussex, referencing last month’s 13-point loss to the Wildcats.”So we tried it again tonight and we succeeded. So we just kept working with it.”
If you’re, say, over the age of 50, or an avid historian of some of the most famous games in NBA history, then Friday’s positional switch plotline might be sounding a little familiar right about now.
Back in the 1980 NBA championships, the Los Angeles Lakers were embroiled in a tough title series with the Philadelphia 76ers when the Lakers lost starting centre Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to injury.
So for Game 6 of that series, they decided to play their rookie point guard Magic Johnson in his place, and Johnson — who wound playing at virtually every part of the floor including in the post — scored 42 points in a title-clinching victory.
The circumstances, of course, are not exactly the same.
Sussex didn’t move inside due to injury, she’s 14 inches shorter than the 6-foot-9 Johnson, and she finished the game with 26 points.
None of that matters, however, because at whatever level you decide to dissect the game, basketball is basketball.
As the late, great sportswriter Leonard Koppett always said of the sport: “The essence of the game is deception.”
And as Sussex — whose game has its own kind of Magic/Bird traits at times — won match-up after match-up down low by taking the entry pass and scoring with her back to the basket, the Rapids were capturing a sweet spot in time, putting smaller defenders into a place of vulnerability and asking them to react to something they don’t see on a regular basis.
“Part of playing in this game is the environment, it’s the pressure,” Burnaby Central head coach Chris Ducharme explained after the game.
“You can coach it all you want on the sidelines, and talk about the game plan… things are going to fall apart,” he continued of what, on a daily basis, is an accepted axiom at any level of the game. “Our game plan was to front (Sussex) in the post.. and change the angle of those (entry) passes. We knew she was coming in there to put our smalls in the post, (but) our smalls couldn’t play behind her.
“But again, possession after possession, they kept standing behind her when they needed a swim to get in front of her, and front that. If we do that and start putting her (deeper) under the hoop, she leaves (the paint). We know that if we did that, she would leave within a second or so.
“There had to be four or five possessions where we didn’t make that (adjustment), and I think that even though they heard it… it’s the knowing and doing and executing. (Riverside) got us out of our rhythm and they stuck with that stuff.”
Riverside head coach Paul Langford admitted afterwards that Sussex has drilled countless reps in the post, as much for the development of her overall game.
And thus in so many ways, it was the perfect adjustment at the perfect time.
“Avery is a handful anyways, so you’re thinking about how you’re going to guard her inside, and then her post moves are good,” Langford said. “She is very efficient. She had 15 (points) in the first half and did not play well, and that’s the sign of a pretty good kid.”
There were a lot of other very good ones on Friday, not the least of which was the 6-foot-2, Simon Fraser-bound post Natalie Curley, who scored 12 points, but most importantly is the other half of the team’s unique two-person leverage point with Sussex. Make no mistake, the Rapids thrive most when their high-low presence is in synch.
And there was also the Grade 10 guard Jorja Hart (11 points), the Rapids’ glue-girl and bridge between the front and back courts.
And of course, playing the penultimate game of her high school career was Burnaby Central’s 5-foot-3 senior guard and future UBC Thunderbird, Jade Huynh.
Scoring a team-high 18 points as the senior of inlfuence on a largely-Grade 11 team almost three seasons removed from its 2020 B.C. Grade championship campaign didn’t begin to tell the story of a senior leader around which an entire program’s renaissance can be credited.
“I have coached her since she was in Grade 8 on the senior team so she has been the building block,” said Ducharme. “When you have a ‘player’ you kind of build around that player… your offence, the defence. She is the juggernaut. She made this team. And she’s brought us to where we are at the end of the day.”
Burnaby Central will face Yale for third place at 11:30 a.m. Saturday.
And all of that tallk of the players brings us back to tonight’s spotlighted title tilt against the Gators and their once-in-a-lifetime superstar guard Kiera Pemberton.
In short, what a match-up. Or should that be what a re-match?
The two teams have not played against each other at the Langley Events Centre since the championship final of the Tsumura Basketball Invitational on Dec. 17.
In that game, Pemberton was her usual incredible self with 46 points, copping the MVP award despite the fact that Sussex and the Rapids were able to win 73-68.
Nothing about Pemberton’s searing run to the record books has slowed since, and so from Riverside’s perspective, nothing matters more to them than simply giving their best performance of the season.
“I am goign to celebrate for another hour, and then I am probably not going to sleep tonight… I’ll watch some film,” said Langford.
“Kiera is so unpredictable… she’s got great balance, she is really unpredictable. She’s seen more defences this year than anybody and I have watched her numerous times, and she is very good. We’re not going to lie down. We’re going to try some stuff.”
They did Friday, and in the process reminded us all that sometimes, in this deeply beautiful game of on-court chess, it can come down to something as simple as how you decide to look at the board and its pieces.
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