LANGLEY — They have come to be a basketball match made in heaven.
And it’s in all the ways that Walnut Grove seniors Tavia Rowell and Jessica Wisotzki celebrate each other as players which enabled the Gators to beat PoCo’s Riverside Rapids 91-64 on Saturday night at the Langley Events Centre and repeat as Tsumura Basketball Invitational girls champions.
Rowell, the 5-foot-10 guard whose offensive game was, prior to this season, defined more by her ability to score points by the bushel, has now added the extra layer of playmaker to her mentality, masterfully mixing the two to the tune of 24 points and a cache of assists well into double figures, the majority of which she sent Wisotzki’s way in the paint.
And the beauty of this pairing is that Wisotzki, too, has made changes to her game, sacrificing much of the face-up game and three-point shooting that she had just begun to master last season in order to give her team the hard-nosed, rebounding and free-throw shooting force it desperately sought after senior Natalie Rathler moved on to a U Sports career with the Fraser Valley Cascades.
And on Saturday, it was with those re-imagined roles stoking the team’s collective furnace that the Gators simply wore down the Rapids, despite a tremendous performance from guard Jessica Parker, its own senior star.
Rowell, selected the tourney MVP, scored when she had to, including her team’s first seven points of the game, as well as five of the Gators’ final seven before the half on a three at the shot-clock buzzer and a coast-to-coast lay-in 40 seconds prior to the break which put Walnut Grove ahead 42-32 at intermission.
“I just think she’s tapped into a strength that she’s always had,” said Darren Rowell, her head coach and her dad as Walnut Grove built its lead to 70-51 after three quarters. “And that’s the ability to move the ball and find open people and make other people better. It’s really what a scoring point guard should do and she’s evolving into that role.”
Tavia Rowell, in fact, didn’t even score a point in the fourth quarter, but it was throughout the game, especially in the third quarter and early stages of the fourth, that virtually every Gators basket seemed to come off one of her passes.
“I just think we have a connection,” said Wisotzki, last season’s TBI 2017 MVP, who scored 16 of her team-high 34 points in the third quarter, making great cuts to the basket and playing through the physical contact after taking feeds from Rowell. “We just know that if she makes eye contact, she passes the ball to me, and it just works out perfectly. It’s a great bond we have on and off the court.”
That is one half of the mutual admiration society. The other?
“I love it, it’s so much fun, especially because she gets rebounds” Rowell said of targeting Wisotzki down low and then watching her thrive in the physical setting of the paint. “She does everything. She gets shots. She passes. She is such a great player. It’s awesome to play with her. So when my shot was there for me tonight, I would take it, but there’s others on this team that can score so I don’t need to shoot as much.”
Bring up the subject of Walnut Grove’s dynamic duo with Jeremy Neufeld and it’s hard for the Riverside assistant coach not to tip his hat.
“First of all we have to give credit to Walnut Grove because they are an outstanding team and so hard to match up with,” Neufeld said before addressing the dual-threat dynamics of the Tavia-Jessica duo.
“It helps when Jessica is running the floor the way she is,” Neufeld said. “You don’t find many girls that are 6-foot-2 who can run the floor like she can, and that makes it easier for them.
“But in a way, you almost want Tavia to bring the ball up the court because you want to try to wear her out,” Neufeld added. “But then she’s just relentless. She is a tough player to guard.”
Each Gator admitted afterwards that the new areas of focus within their respective games have made them more complete players.
“I definitely won’t have the big scoring job,” Rowell said of moving into her NCAA Div. 1 career next season as a freshman at Grand Canyon State in Phoenix. “So just being able to pass and do other things is a big thing going to Div. 1 basketball. So I am so happy to have someone to pass to and connect with so well this year, to work on it for next year.”
Adds the SFU-bound Wisotzki of her newfound love of playing in the paint: “I love to initiate the contact and draw the fouls as much as I can. I love the and-ones and then everything about hustling back on defence , and then getting ready for the next (offensive series).”
For Wisotzki, it’s a change she says she initiated.
“Without Nat here,” she said the now-graduated Rathler, “I needed to step up and be the big rebounder, and to try to get to the line and score more points for my team.”
After Wisotzki’s 34 points and Rowell’s 24, Sophia Wisotzki added 10 points, Fania Taylor 9 and Rolande Taylor seven.
The Rapids got a game-high 35 points from senior guard and soon-to-be UFV Cascade Jessica Parker, as well as 13 from Tessa Burton, and six apiece from Adrienne Willems and Sammy Shields.
Afterwards, Gators head coach Rowell explained his team’s pre-game focus, which ended being a huge tribute to the unstoppable nature of Parker.
“We really focused on defence and shutting down Jessica Parker, and even though she still scored a ton of points, I felt like still did a really good against her,” said Rowell. “She is so tough to defend, and she draws fouls.”
In other TBI placing games:
3rd-4th —Brookswood 92 Kelowna 87
5th-6th — Abbotsford 71 Langley Christian 64
7th-8th — St. Thomas Aquinas 70 R.A. McMath 55
9th-10th — Britannia 73 South Kamloops 62
11th-12th — Heritage Woods 62 G.W. Graham 57
13th-14th — Whistler 63 Centennial 57
15th-16th — Valleyview 82 Fraser Heights 20
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