LANGLEY — There’s a memorable line from the classic high school basketball movie Hoosiers that seemed especially apropos Monday night as a classic of playoff game unfolded at the Langley Events Centre.
In the 1987 film, it was Gene Hackman’s central character, coach Norman Dale who said: “Five players on the floor functioning as one single unit. Team. Team. Team. No one more important than the other.”
That’s what I thought about as I re-digested the winning play in overtime that carried Richmond’s No. 6 seeded R.A. McMath Wildcats to a 69-67 win over the No, 2 seed Vancouver College Fighting Irish in the second of two semifinals here at the 2019 B.C. Junior Boys Basketball Championships.
(Burnaby South beat St. Patrick’s 58-35 in the night’s first seminal and will face McMath in Tuesday’s 7 p.m. B.C. final. A report on that game will follow early Tuesday)
In the three days I have spent getting to know the Wildcats and their personnel, the one thing that strikes you most is that in the pre-game warm-ups, they look remarkably like just about every other standard-issue team of 10th graders you’ve seen.
That is to say, they don’t really pass that wow-factor eye test.
Yet in every way that actually counts, once the game clock starts, they cease becoming anything you’d even remotely label as ordinary.
“It’s heart, just heart,” said head coach Jon Acob of a team whose tallest player stands 6-foot-1 and whose average height in the six-man rotation it employed against Vancouver College was somewhere around 5-foot-11. “There is a grittiness to this team, there is something special here. They buy in and they believe. They play defence, defence, defence. They play team basketball.”
It’s why they refused to quit when the Irish built a 43-30 lead part way through the third quarter.
It’s how in overtime, McMath guard Travis Hamberger dropped a dagger triple with 25 seconds remaining to pull his Wildcats into a 65-65 tie.
It’s also how Hamberger just a handful of seconds later, stole the ball from Vancouver College and went coast-to-coast for a lay-in and a 67-65 lead with 8.6 seconds remaining.
And it’s how after the Irish’s Parsa Heydarzadeh desposited a lay-in with 4.7 seconds remaining to tie game 67-67, there was not even the slightest flinch in McMath’s response.
The Wildcats ran a play that assistant coach Chris Kennedy had drawn up in the team’s 66-48 tourney-opening win Saturday against Kamloops’ Sa-Hali Sabres.
The play was designed to get Hamberger a shot, but Acob had told him he could create off the set if he had to.
“I just made the read because they came to double me,” Hamberger said after of the play.
Said Kennedy: “We just knew (Vancouver College) was going to run at (Hamberger). He had three guys running at him. I just turned and said ‘We’re going to knock down a lay-up here.”
Said Hamberger: “I saw Elias (Khan) open and so I passed it to him.”
Added Kennedy: “Over the first three games here, at the end of each of them, when all of the other teams have looked tight and panicked, we’ve been calm. We have a great team energy because everybody is in the ball game all the time.”
And thus with 1.7 seconds remaining in overtime, Hamberger found his teammate Elias Khan with the pass along the baseline that led to the winning basket.
Khan had scored four points in the first quarter, but nothing since, yet it didn’t matter one iota to the Wildcats.
“That’s the special thing about this team,” Kennedy added, the entire locker room still on the high of the Khan lay-in. “We don’t rely on one guy, even though everybody else probably thought that Elias Khan would have been the fifth guy that was going to hit that shot.”
On Monday, the Wildcats biggest task was trying to find a way to slow the Irish’s 6-foot-8 uber talent Jacob Holt, and tasked with the primary chore was none other than the 6-foot-1 Khan.
“Elias did a good job of staying in front of him,” Acob said afterwards.
Holt still scored 19 points, but based on the damage he has inflicted on other teams throughout the tournament, that was a victory for McMath.
In the end, the Wildcats did just enough to prevent Holt from getting into a rhythm.
When he picked up his third foul with 5:39 left in the third quarter, Vancouver College led 39-28. Yet by the end of the frame McMath had closed to within 47-45.
Holt returned, yet picked up his fourth foul with 2:42 left in regulation, then fouled out with 58.4 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Khan may have only scored six points on the night, but so much else of what he did was even more important from a defensive standpoint.
Kennedy’s post-game analysis was founded on the fact that his team won, in part because they never allowed Holt and the Irish to get in a groove.
“When (Holt) picked up his third foul, he had to come out and we went on a little run,” Kennedy said. “When he came back later their momentum was gone. I think the fact they had to keep pulling him in and out really affected them.”
Hamberger’s 26 points led the winners, while Rio Hutchful added 18, Miguel Vargas seven, and Kenneth Wong six.
Forward Logan Frost came off the bench to score 16 points for the Irish, Cole Cruz-Dumont had 14, and Zyken San Felipe, who had a good look at a short jumper and almost sent the game to a second overtime, had six points.
“Kudos to McMath,” said Irish head coach Trixie Cruz whose son Cole was also lost in the second half to injury. “Last year in the Grade 9 (B.C. semifinals), Vancouver College beat them by a point, so I am sure they feel vindicated for that, but at the same time, it’s a little disappointing. I think there were some key calls that took our big man out of the game a little earlier than he should have been, but that is the way basketball goes and you can only control what you can control. I think we lost a little bit of our composure in the third quarter and that brought our lead down and they capitalized on it.”
Which brings this miraculous McMath run to Tuesday’s 7 p.m. championship finale against No. 1-ranked, undefeated Burnaby South.
Overall, the 2019 B.C. junior boys tournament has pretty much gone to form as far as the seeding numbers are concerned.
Except of course where the No. 6 Wildcats are concerned.
With a seeding like theirs, they aren’t exactly Hoosier-like underdogs.
Yet you might not have given them much of a chance because beyond No. 27 Sa-Hali, according to the seeds, they would have to scale a gauntlet of teams whose resumes they simply could not match.
Still, they beat defending B.C. champion St. George’s, they beat Fraser Valley champ and No. 3 seed Yale, and then they beat Independent champ and No. 2 seed Vancouver College.
Three, two and now one?
Well, if you refuse to lose the way McMath’s Hamberger does, who’s to say what’s possible?
“Tonight, we just never thought we were down,” he said.”We just always thought we were in the game. We never gave up. We just kept our heads up, never got frustrated and just played as a team. Everyone was important from the starters to the guys on the bench.”
All of a sudden, I can hear Norman Dale again: “Five players on the floor functioning as one single unit. Team. Team. Team. No one more important than the other.”
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