LANGLEY — The hardest thing to do this season in the B.C. girls high school basketball world was to avoid concentrating on the obvious.
And as so many coaches around this province would ultimately discover, paying too much defensive attention to perhaps the greatest scorer to ever grace our midst was ultimately not the answer to stopping Walnut Grove guard Kiera Pemberton.
As Saturday’s marquee Quad-A B.C. title clash at the Langley Events Centre between Pemberton’s No. 1-seeded Gators and the No. 3 Riverside Rapids once again proved, there has simply been no way, within the rules of the sport, to stop the 6-foot guard, whose final act of legend, over a senior season in which she averaged over 40 points per game, was to score a game-high 39 points, in the process breaking her own top-tiered tournament scoring record.
Yet after Port Coquitlam’s Rapids had claimed a convincing 70-52 win, despite the efforts of the North Dakota-bound Pemberton, the most obvious thing of all was that there was nothing obvious about what had just unfolded.
Sometimes you can focus on something so intently that you miss the bigger picture, and the rise to prominence of Kiera Pemberton, in so many ways larger than life within the regulation confines of our B.C. high school sports world, was the perfect example.
Her seeming invincibility in the face of any defence gripped an entire fraternity of opposition coaches to the point where it may have kept their thinking in the box, that place where concentrating on the obvious is the easiest way to miss the big picture.
Ask Riverside head coach Paul Langford about just such matters, and he will be the first one to put up his hand and count himself guilty.
“I watched about nine or 10 of their games,” Langford said Saturday after the win, speaking to the process of sifting through play after Gators’ play to find the magic defence which might finally slow Pemberton down.
“I thought to myself ‘My God, triangle-and-one doesn’t work, box-and-one doesn’t work, playing her physical doesn’t work, laying off her doesn’t work,’” he said of the game’s most tried-and-true ‘junk’ defences.
Eventually, it was enough to force Langford, 66, to step outside of that anxiety-ridden box, hit the mental re-set button, and begin to address the issue from a much simpler place.
“Everybody was asking me ‘What are you going to do?’” he continued of the fact that when the 2023 B.C. 16-team draw was released, it had the two teams on opposite sides of the bracket, creating the potential for Saturday’s collision-course clash.
“Finally, I just said to them ‘We’re going to outscore them.’”
MAYBE OFFENCE CAN WIN CHAMPIONSHIPS?
The only two previous meetings between the Rapids and Gators took place a month apart beginning in mid-December.
A week before Christmas Eve, in the final of the Tsumura Basketball Invitational at the LEC, No. 1 Riverside beat No. 2 Walnut Grove 73-68.
Then, on Jan. 17 in the final of the Centennial Top 10 Shoot-Out in Coquitlam, the Gators beat the Rapids 72-65 in overtime.
Take Saturday’s rubber match into account, and in the three meetings, Riverside’s offensive output stayed within an eight-point range (65-to-73).
Yet the difference on Saturday, subtle to be sure, came when Riverside trusted the fact that the mindset of outscoring their talented foes had to take priority over its mindset of stopping Kiera Pemberton.
Off the opening tip, with a sell-out crowd of 2,243 watching with intense curiosity, Langford and co-coach Jeremy Neufeld conducted an experiment just to make sure.
They played a unique version of the triangle-and-two defence with three players zoned up in its namesake formation, and two others both fronting and backing Pemberton.
Yet it was ultimately scrapped just 5:17 into the game because while Pemberton’s offensive pace was being slowed somewhat, it proved unsustainable because she was still making the Rapids pay in one specific way: Drawing fouls at such a prolific rate that the Riverside would have run out players by game’s end.
The final blow was starting Grade 10 guards Jorja Hart’s second foul of the quarter with 4:43 left in that first frame.
“After Jorja’s second foul, I just thought ‘We can’t do this anymore,’” Langford explained later of why he scrapped the triangle-and-two and simply resorted to a bread-and-butter box-and-one.
Langford designated Hart, post Natalie Curley and the team’s superstar guard Avery Sussex as three members of that zone, while alternating a number of others to complete the box, and he did it as much to try and protect his top three scorers from the fouls that could come from stepping out onto an island in single coverage against Pemberton.
The one player whose job it would be to play woman-to-woman defence against Pemberton?
“It didn’t matter,” Langford said of the rotation he used. “I think we used Grace (Park), Olivia (Wheatley), Rae (Roycroft). They all took turns.”
The results weren’t instantaneous, but they weren’t glacial as well.
In the end, it seemed to take Walnut Grove out of their rhythm because while Pemberton got untracked, scoring 28 of her 39 in the second and third quarters combined, the rest of the Gators scored just five points over that same span.
And with the foul count no longer an issue for the team’s top three scorers, their offence came to life. They outscored the Gators 42-33 between the critical second and third quarters, carrying a 59-46 lead into the final frame.
“We had three more defences we were going to throw at them, but I was really happy with the last one,” added Langford. “And when we started building the lead, I think it just put more pressure on their shots.”
Walnut Grove head coach Darren Rowell said afterwards that there was a concerted effort on his team’s part to establish Pemberton’s offensive presence as early as possible.
“Not that she had to shoot first every time, but we really wanted to key in on her, and they did a good job of preventing that from happening,” he said. “But we didn’t do a good job of having complimentary players step up and chip in. We didn’t have a lot of additional scoring which really hurt us today.”
Outside of Pemberton’s 39 points, starting forward Kyanna Knoedel scored nine points, and Abby Adams and Avery Sorenson scored two each.
“It was partly because of their aggressiveness, and because we were not quite able to rebound as well as we’d hoped,” added Rowell. “We got it down to 11 (55-44 with 2:28 left in the third quarter on a pair of Pemberton free throws), and I thought ‘Oh man, maybe there’s a bit of spark here, but we had trouble getting going offensively and they had a lot of complimentary scoring.”
To say Sussex was sensation is an understatement, the Grade 11 guard bringing a captain’s command to the proceedings, hitting four triples on the night and finishing with a game-high 23 points.
Hart, the Grade 10 whose role was upped dramatically over the injury-plagued season endured by her older sister, senior Alexis Hart, was so much more substantial than even the 14 points she scored, thriving after picking up those two early fouls.
Annabelle Neufeld, another Grade 10 guard, and the team’s most improved player over the second half of the season, played one of her best games, hitting two big triples in the second quarter, and finishing with 12 points.
Curley, the SFU-bound senior post, was in so many ways the match-up X-factor with her size and dexterity, and she finished off her high school career with nine points, 13 rebounds (six offensive) as well as a pair of assists and a pair of steals.
“Obviously Avery was sensational all game,” Rowell said of Sussex. “But then Jorja had a bunch of threes and Annabelle some threes, and Grace (Park) came in and hit a three. Nat was strong the whole game. I thought for the first half we did a good job on Avery, but she really exploded in the second.”
PAUL LANGFORD AND THE RIVERSIDE BAND
It was a week ago today, on Feb. 27, just two days before the start of the provincial tournament, and Paul Langford was among the thousands in attendance at Seattle’s Climate Pledge Arena for what he estimated was his “twentysomething time” attending a concert by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
“Springsteen hasn’t played ‘She’s The One’ in a long time,” Langford said moments after the win on Saturday night, referencing a tune from his epic 1975 ‘Born To Run’ LP.
“I thought about that title, and then I thought about Avery Sussex and how lucky I am to coach her,” Langford continued, by this point sobbing. “She is the one. How cool.
“And what a week for me,” he continued of winning his first provincial girls basketball title (and Riverside’s, too). “I see Springsteen live with my brothers and one of my daughters. Then I come here and I win four games. That is awesome.
“Sorry I’m crying,” he managed. “But I cried when I finished 11th, too.”
(She’s The One at 5:30 of medley of 02.27.23 Seattle concert clip)
The Sussex influence on these Rapids is impossible to miss.
Often times flashing an angelic smile, but just as often reacting to her head coach from the floor in ways, while which never approaching mutiny, reveal a level of competitive zeal that is always channelled in the right direction.
“Amazing… finally, it took us long enough,” she said of the win as only a Grade 11 teen can. “I am so happy.”
Sussex last season, as a Grade 10, very nearly copped the B.C. title, only to have her Rapids lose narrowly to crosstown rival Terry Fox and her older sister Emily in the title game.
And for the last year, every time she has come up the basement stairs of her family home, she has had to walk straight into the line of sight of a the display of Emily’s, with all of her championship paraphernalia, hanging on a wall.
Of course she’s proud of her sister accomplishments. But she wasn’t about to pretend that in a season in which she fought through a nagging thumb injury to her shooting hand for months, that she didn’t want a title of her own.
“It was the experience that we had last year, losing by two to a team we’ve always beat,” she continued. “It just brought us so much more energy, so much more… want. We were so nervous last year in our first time, but this year, we knew we needed that energy. We knew we brought it (in the semifinals) against Burnaby Central, so we brought it back again tonight and everything worked out so well.”
Thinking back to those late 1990s days, when Riverside as a provincial champion was nothing more than a glint in Paul Langford’s eye, he said he long ago dispensed with the idea that winning a title was his bottom line.
“I don’t coach for the championships,” he continued. “Don’t get me wrong, this is awesome. But it’s not why I coach. Last year when we lost, I said hey ‘Let’s start a jamboree to get more kids involved.’ It’s all about the relationships.”
Like the one has with his coaching partner Jeremy Neufeld, whose dughter Annabelle is a future Rapids star.
“Neufeld is incredible,” said Langford, who in the semifinals switched up the offence to move point guard Sussex into the paint on the advice of Neufeld.
Without that move, the Rapids may have played for third place Saturday instead of a title.
And it’s like one he has with the Hart family, whose daughters — senior Alexis and Grade 10 Jorja — remain close enough in his heart that he lovingly calls them his daughters, too.
Alexis, the team’s star sixth player, damaged her ACL at the start of the season, returned later in the new year, but then in Thursday’s quarterfinal win over Kelowna, suffered a meniscus injury which forced her to watch the title game at her team’s bench while seated in a wheelchair.
“It’s amazing to go out and get the outcome that we wanted,” Jorja explained, holding her all-star team trophy. “My sister going out like that… it was heavy on the heart, but this was for her… and for Paul.”
Langford is a very part of the fabric of B.C. girls high school basketball. He sends out the provincial Quad-A rankings, he hosts B.C. wildcard playoff games, and on Saturday, he won the title he’d been denied in three (2008, 09, 22) previous top-tiered championship finals.
“I’m a mean ass in a game, but I am a pretty gentle,” he confessed Saturday.
Also quirky enough that he started a different line-up for all four B.C. tournament games, something that goes against the grain of everything he has done throughout his playoff-coaching tenure.
“I am a superstitious guy, a crazy-ass guy,” he said in his own defence. “I told myself ‘I lost three of these damn championships. I got to change it up.’”
And so on a weekend in which everyone’s greatest challenge came from trying to stop a girl named Kiera Pemberton, a player the likes of which many of us may not see in our lifetimes, it became time to step outside the box of conventionality and think the game just a little differently.
And now, two days after the end of another season, all of that seems so suddenly obvious.
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