King George senior Darko Karac helped lead his team past Zeru Abera and the STM Knights en route to TBI Select 16 MVP honours during championship game action from the 2023 Tsumura Basketball Invitational on Saturday at the Langley Events Centre. (Photo by Wilson Wong protected image 2023, All Rights Reserved)
Feature High School Boys Basketball

TBI 2023’s Championship Saturday: Heart of a champion still beating as B.C. 2A champ King George tops STM Knights for Select 16 title!



LANGLEY — Darko Kulic admitted that he barely slept on Friday night.

Curiosity got the better of the head coach of the varsity boys basketball team at Vancouver’s King George Secondary after his Dragons moved themselves into the Select 16 championship game against Burnaby’s St. Thomas More at the 2023 Tsumura Basketball Invitational.

“I have to be honest, I stayed up untuil 6 a.m. watching all of their games,” Kulic said of the current Knights’ team whose first three games were all available on-demand via the TFSE.TV’s free TBI streaming service.

“(Opposition teams) were all (going) inside but then they all went away from it,” said Kulic of a rising STM team who despite their myriad talents, do not have a throng of big men ready in rotation to eat space and alter both opposition shots and drives in the paint.

“I said ‘You know what? I trust (Dragons’ frontcourt starters) Andre (Novicic) and Faisal (Shawaa) to make the right reads,’” Kulic said. “So we weren’t going to shy away from that.”

So after holding a 55-52 lead heading into the fourth quarter that felt nowhere near safe, the Dragons seemed to shift their full focus on getting the 6-foot-11 Novicic and the 6-foot-6 Shawwa as many paint touches as they could.


Faisal Shawwa of the King George Dragons gets to the rim against the STM Knights during championship game action from the 2023 Tsumura Basketball Invitational on Saturday at the Langley Events Centre. (Photo by Wilson Wong protected image 2023, All Rights Reserved)

The vast majority of the team’s 10-3 run to open the final quarter gave them a quick 10-point lead, and it was the cushion of that resultant 65-55 advantage which allowed them to be the kind of team they wanted to be the rest of the way en route to a 76-64 victory.

“I love that old school basketball, the hard work on defence, then attacking the paint and kicking out to good open shooters,” said Kulic, whose team improved to 9-0 on the season while the Knights (7-3) had a seven-game win streak snapped with the loss. “I think our game plan coming in was to stay with that plan. Don’t go away from it. They’ll make changes, but don’t change yours, because if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Shawwa finished with a team-high 29 points, while Novicic really heated up in the fourth quarter, scoring 10 of his 18 points in the frame.

The Knights were led by the 30 points of guard Shane Deza, 14 of which came in the second quarter. 

Even in defeat, St. Thomas More head coach Denzel Laguerta could appreciate the growth his talented but size-challenged roster experienced Saturday against King George.

“That is why this tournament is perfect because we need to work though how we’re going to deal with bigger players,” he said.

“We are so perimetre-oriented and the game’s really shifted that way, so that’s why it was refreshing to see that King George (wanted to go inside), and they took it to us.”

Of course nothing works without a maestro to lead the way, and King George has theirs in the form of 6-foot-4 senior guard Darko Karac, whose ability to pass, score and rebound ups the efficiency of the Dragons in vitrually every spot on the floor.

“I don’t know what their parents fed them to make them so tall, but I am grateful and our team is grateful to have big men like we have who can post up and get us points inside,” said Karac, who himself scored 15 points, and was named the tourney MVP.

Afterwards, as Dragons’ coach Kulic admitted how much he and the current players have missed the camaraderie of players lost to both graduation and prep schools from last season’s B.C. title team, he expressed a feeling that some still thought his current team, ranked No. 1 in the latest B.C. Top 10 Double-A poll,  would not be able to compete at the same level as last season’s team.

It left him referencing one of his favourite sports quotes.

“We were missing a few of the guys (from last season), and so I told the team about the old Rudy Tomjanovich quote about how you can “…never underestimaste the heart of a champion,” Kulic said.

It was back in the 1994-95 season that the defending champion Rockets battled injuries and the decline that age brings to every line-up.

Yet despite the doubters, Houston came up huge when it counted, sweeping the young, Shaquille O’Neal-powered Orlando Magic in four straight games to repeat as champs.

Liker those Rockets, who were also stylistically similar to the Dragons with centre Hakeem Olajuwon either scoring inside via his patented Dream Shake pivot, or drawing the double team and kicking out to shooters like Vernon Maxwell, Kenny Smith and Robert Horry, King George is trying to show the B.C. high school ranks that it, too, has the heart of a champion.

Looking to dish back against the defence of STM’s Jacob Oreta (right) is King George guard Ashton Vij during championship game action from the 2023 Tsumura Basketball Invitational on Saturday at the Langley Events Centre. (Photo by Wilson Wong protected image 2023, All Rights Reserved)

“We just talked about finding the energy and I am really proud of them becasue they found it,” said Kulic, whose team has now improved to a perfect 9-0, with all of those wins coming over the past 12 days. “I don’t know where they found it, but they dug deep and I am so proud of them.”

Jacob Oreta with 13 points and Rylan Chau with 11 also broke double figures on offence for St. Thomas More, while Zeru Abera added eight points.

“These are the games we want to be in,” said STM coach Laguerta who knows his team has the foundation in place to make some noise by first earning a B.C. tournament berth. “It’s all to emulate where we want to get to, so we’re really thankful our kids got this experience under their belt.

“We have to learn from this and see, from a youthful team, who is going to take on a leadership role and (help us) get better from here.”

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