LANGLEY — For all of accolades and all of the recognition they receive, the vast majority of Surrey’s Semiahmoo Totems are still over two full years away from donning cap and gown at their high school commencement ceremonies.
And so when the province’s No. 1-ranked and undefeated senior girls Triple A basketball team walked out in front of a capacity crowd of some 1,900 fans Saturday at the Langley Event Centre to try to win its first B.C. high school senior varsity title since 1953, they were finally staring out into lights they thought might be a little too bright.
“I think it was mostly nerves,” admitted the Totems’ star point guard Deja Lee whose team found itself lodged in a 26-9 hole just over six minutes from halftime against the No. 2-ranked, veteran-laden Walnut Grove Gators of Langley.
“None of us had ever played in front of a crowd like that, and I think some of us were a little shocked by it,” continued Lee. “After a while, though, we realized that we could do this. We got our heads together. We took a deep breath.”
And when they exhaled, the Totems had managed a complete about-face en route to a 72-61 victory.
It was now official.
If you had ever wondered whether a team with a seven-player rotation which included six Grade 10s was capable of winning a top-tiered B.C. senior girls title, you had your answer.
Afterwards, the team’s veteran head coach Allison McNeill wasn’t about to admit she was sweating every detail of her team’s nightmarish start against a Walnut Grove team which was just as responsible for the score with its aggressive, determined and focused play.
But she was willing to admit she was getting pretty close.
“I looked up at one point, and you always in your heart of hearts, believe your team can win,” said McNeill, Canada’s former senior women’s national team head coach. “I’ve always been that way. But I looked up (at the scoreboard) and saw nine points. I thought holy cow, are we ever going to hit double digits?”
The Gators, finalists a year ago and determined to claim a title for the graduating trio of Tavia Rowell, Jessica Wisotzki and Rolande Taylor, were dialed in off the opening tip.
After the Totems hit a pair of free throws to take a 9-7 lead, the Gators put together a 19-0 run which extended 3:47 into the third quarter as Wisotzki hit a trey and then added a lay-in for a 26-9 lead.
Yes, Semiahmoo had climbed out of plenty holes this season in order to bring a 39-0 record into Saturday’s contest.
But trailing by 17 in a place where the crowd was big, the lights were bright and a team led by its trio of seniors was leaving it all on the floor in order to achieve the dream ending in the final game of their high school careers?
“I loved our energy to start the game,” said Gators’ head coach Darren Rowell. “But I thought it was their defensive pressure in the second quarter that caused us problems and took us out of what we wanted to do offensively.”
And even though they trailed 28-21 at the half, Semiahmoo’s chins were being held high as they headed to the locker room on a 12-2 run.
And if there were two first-half baskets which served as a portent to the second half, they were without question the two step-back threes from the top of the arc which Lee, the tournament MVP who finished with 19 points, drained with aplomb.
Lee hit the first with 1:38 left before the break, and the second with 44.4 seconds remaining to wrap up the first half scoring.
They were the cold, hard reminder that once Semiahmoo’s outside shots start to fall, there is not a deficit they have faced that is too large to overcome.
“That was a little set we put in just before the B.C.’s,” said McNeill of the quick-hitter for Lee. “Everyone has been keying on DJ, so we put in a little set to let her have some shots.”
That late first half surge dove-tailed with a number of key second-half developments, all of which just seemed to stoke the fire of the Totems, who took a 40-38 lead with 3:55 left in the third quarter on a Tara Wallack lay-in and never looked back the rest of the night.
The first came when Semiahmoo’s senior post Faith Dut came back from an extended stint on the bench dictated by her early foul trouble.
The second came when Walnut Grove’s gutsy but undersized 5-foot-7 senior post Ro Taylor fouled out of the game with seven minutes remaining and her team hanging on, trailing Semiahmoo 52-48.
Taylor had grabbed 12 rebounds in first half and was doing a very effective job despite giving away eight inches to the powerful, 6-foot-3 Dut, headed next season to play for the Florida Gators.
Gators coach Rowell had no choice but to throw 5-foot-9 Grade 10 Anneke Cairnie into the very tough position of trying to stop Dut.
“To be on this stage, taking on that type of assignment, checking that kind of talent in Faith Dut, I thought her energy was awesome,” said Rowell off Cairnie who got a real trial by fire.
That change to the Gators’ post defence, coupled with the mastery Lee was showing from the point guard position spelled the end for Walnut Grove.
“They are just a great team that is really hard to defend,” said coach Rowell. “When Deja started popping threes and then Faith got going inside, there were just too many weapons to deal with.”
Dut finished her high school career by scoring 23 points, while Izzy Forsyth had 17 points and 11 rebounds. Wallack had 13 as only four Totems hit the scoresheet.
Wisotzki had 28 points and 13 rebounds, Rowell had 19 points and nine rebounds, while Taylor had 12 rebounds and six points.
“I could not be more proud,” said coach Rowell of his team. “For five years they competed at a super-high level and to finish second (at senior varsity) twice is difficult, but it’s also very difficult to be at this level year in and year out.”
McNeill, the Princeton native who prepped for her collegiate career with the Oregon Ducks by helping lead the legendary Salmon Arm Jewels, admitted afterwards she had a lot of her past on her mind as she drove in to the LEC for Saturday’s game.
“Every moment is the best moment when you’re in it,” she laughed when asked how this one compared to playing and/or coaching in high school, the NAIA, the NCAA and of course at the Olympics. “So right now, this is the best moment I’ve had in a long time.
“I was thinking about my old high school coach Joe Kupkee,” McNeill added of her late bench boss with the Jewels. “I was thinking how proud he might be that I was coaching and giving back at the high school level because he was a teacher and a coach and he was so dedicated to us.
“But today,” she added, “it the kids that deserve the credit. Their comeback was epic.”
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