LANGLEY — If you had simply counted up the W’s and the L’s along the will-testing 3-10 stretch which Burnaby’s St. Thomas More Knights navigated over the first six weeks of 2020, you wouldn’t have believed your eyes this past Sunday afternoon at the Langley Events Centre.
Those very Knights, the ones most would have labelled the longest of long shots to make The Big Dance, seemed to get every step just right, just when it mattered most.
Led by the 20 points of senior point guard Gabe Nacario, Burnaby’s Knights topped the crosstown Byrne Creek Bulldogs 58-55 to win the inaugural Fraser North Triple A zone championship tournament, capping a most surreal week in which STM also punched tickets to next month’s B.C. championship tournament for the first time since 2017.
Yet ask longtime head coach Aaron Mitchell about the daily process of working to improve, all of which took place just under the surface of some pretty ugly scores, including a gruesome looking 76-52 home-floor drubbing at the hands of the Pitt Meadows Marauders, and you start to understand that breakthroughs don’t come 100 per cent of the time without such purposeful intentions.
“The Pitt game, everyone in our locker room thought we could do it,” said Mitchell of what would be their fifth straight loss. “People see the score on Twitter, but the truth is, we’re up by 14 at half. They just see that we lose by 24.”
It’s paradoxical in a sense, because what looked on the outside to be rock bottom, was actually the start of the team’s current crest, one which has it riding a five-game win streak heading into the provincial championships.
And of course, how fitting was it from their perspective that the Knights qualified for the B.C.’s by beating Pitt Meadows 75-69 in overtime last week in the zone semifinals.
“I think our guys, heading into that game, realized that if just did our jobs, that (Pitt Meadows) could be ripe for the picking,” said Mitchell. “So we went at them, and we broke their press. I can’t tell you when it all clicked, but it just did.”
And just as he has done so masterfully down the stretch drive of the season, Nacario has been the catalyst STM has needed.
“The biggest thing for us is Gabe Nacario,” said Mitchell. “If you asked him, he’ll tell you that we were hard on him. But you can see it now. When your point guard is your best player, being the ball handler, hitting big shots, it just loosens up everything else.”
On Sunday against a Byrne Creek team which is one of the most explosive offensive units across all tiers in the province when hot, the STM focus never seemed to wane.
Chayze Deza added 13 points in the winning cause, and big man Kaishaun Carter, the UBC-bound football star with a knack for rushing the passer, also showed a knack for gobbling up offensive rebounds.
“We’re so happy that this team bought in,” said Mitchell, who now has an inspired and re-invented group with which to put through a full week of practice in advance of the tournament.
“They put up with me riding them, and I will say, this (a Fraser North zone championship) was not on our goal sheet. We just wanted to make provincials.”
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