COQUITLAM — They’ve always played under a moniker, which in the grand tradition of the best high school nicknames, has lacked a genuine relevancy to either its history or its geography.
Yet if you were among those in attendance for Saturday night’s championship final of Centennial Secondary’s re-borne Top 10 Shoot-Out senior girls basketball invitational, you couldn’t help but notice how figuratively thick-skinned and leathery-tough the winning Walnut Grove Gators ultimately were.
How else to better describe the ways in which Langley’s No. 2-ranked Gators regained their toothy bite just in time to stave off the late collapse of a seemingly-impenetrable 17-point lead to upset the No. 1-ranked Riverside Rapids of Port Coquitlam in a 72-65 overtime thriller between B.C.’s two Quad-A powers.
And to Gators’ head coach Darren Rowell, the title-game effort was all a part of a larger picture for his team, one which illustrated the importance of the learning moments which never fail to present themselves within the ebbs and flows of a season.
“Our girls have been really tough and I am just proud that they were able to be so resilient,” he began in reference to the two losses his Gators carried into play when the four-day, 16-team Top 10 Shoot-Out tipped off this past Wednesday: A 73-68 loss to Riverside on Dec. 17 in the final of the Tsumura Basketball Invitational at the LEC, as well as a 70-69 loss last week to Triple-A No. 3 St. Michaels University School Blue Jags of Victoria in the semifinals of the MEI Eagles invitational in Abbotsford.
“When we lost last weekend (to SMUS) I said it to the girls, that it was really a sign that a tougher team beat us,” continued Rowell. “That was our teaching point to come out last weekend. And of course we had lost to Riverside at the TBI. So I am really proud that we were able to come back and beat SMUS (61-56 in a Friday semifinal), and then tonight beat Riverside. Really proud of that.”
In case you haven’t figured this out by now, if Walnut Grove and Riverside do happen to meet in the B.C. final this March, the difference is going to be which team gets the greatest improvement and game-to-game consistency on both sides of the ball from, all things being equal, players whose surnames aren’t Pemberton and Sussex.
On Saturday, it was hard to imagine either Walnut Grove’s Kiera Pemberton or Riverside’s Avery Sussex doing anything more for their teams.
Pemberton, the 6-foot senior guard who was actually held to three points in the fourth quarter, finished with a game-high 43 points and was named the tournament’s MVP (full tourney award winners below).
Sussex, the 5-foot-7 Grade 11 guard, scored a team-high 37 points.
Both players, in fact, scored 10 points for their respective teams in the opening quarter, a frame led 17-14 by the Gators.
Yet Pemberton turned it on in the second and her brand of driving, slicing trips to the rim, and her uncanny ability to rebound and score in traffic, had her sitting with 26 at the break as Walnut Grove took a 38-28 lead into their halftime room.
That momentum opened the second half, and after a 7-0 run to start the third quarter, the Gators built their biggest lead of the game at 45-28.
“We didn’t have a very good plan for Kiera and she was good and on balance,” said Rapids’ head coach Paul Langford. “And we scored 28 points in the first half so they did a good job on us. We didn’t shoot the ball well, and when you don’t do that, you have to do other things well. We really didn’t.”
Yet instead of shrinking, the Rapids came together and dictated tempo and flow for the majority of the second half behind the generalship of Sussex, the gutsy play of 5-foot-9 10th grade guard Jorja Hart (14 points), and the two-way presence of 6-foot-2 senior centre Natalie Curley (eight points).
In fact Riverside’s play over the final three minutes of regulation had the same feel as its best moments during last March’s run to second place at the B.C. championships.
Sussex made a steal, dribbled to the top of the key, then unfurled a triple with 2:49 left that pulled the Rapids to within 57-54.
Curley turned her own offensive rebound into a pair of free throws, both of which she hit with 1:47 left to make it 57-56.
Walnut Grove’s Pemberton was fouled with 18 seconds remaining, but rimmed out her first free throw before hitting her second to put the Gators on top 58-56.
But then off a baseline inbounds play, Curley took a feed, dribbled along the baseline, then pulled up and sank a 10-footer which ultimately knotted the game 58-58 and forced overtime.
The old adage of expending too much energy in the comeback, however, really seemed to come back and bite the Rapids in the extra frame.
The Gators got a driving lay-up to open things up from senior forward Abby Adams.
After that, four Walnut Grove hoops from Pemberton (back-door cut, lay-up, offensive rebound put-back, turnaround full extension lay-up off glass) made it 68-63 with 1:47 remaining.
Grade 11 guard Kyanna Knodel scored her team’s last two buckets ahead of a closing lay-up by Riverside’s Sussex.
“Honestly, we all talked about who wanted it more (heading into overtime), and we decided that we were just going to do our best,” said Pemberton. “Win or lose, it didn’t matter. And we did it. Right now, I am just really impressed with our team and proud of all of my teammates who just did an awesome job.”
Added Gators coach Rowell: “To come back in overtime, even though the momentum had shifted was huge. Obviously Kiera is our superstar, but we got some awesome defensive contributions from so many other players.”
For the winners, senior guard Tia Rowell his four treys and finished with 12 points while Adams scored 10 points and Knodel another seven.
Annabelle Neufeld, Rae Roycroft and Olivia Wheatley each scored two points for the Rapids.
Asked afterwards if there was some measure of fatigue heading into overtime after coming back from such a large deficit in regulation time, Sussex felt otherwise.
“I honestly don’t think it was a physical struggle,” said Sussex of the overtime. “Mentally, we didn’t think fast enough to rotate on defence and we didn’t get those rebounds. I think at the end of the day, our box-outs wound up losing us the game.”
She also felt that her team’s loss, much like Walnut Grove’s setbacks against both the Rapids and laters SMUS, would serve to re-kindle Riverside’s flame in a positive way.
“One-hundred per cent,” she said. “ I was just telling (my teammates) that this is our motivation, that we need to get in the gym, that we need everybody to come to shoots, and then we can bring it,” she explained. “This one didn’t matter. It’s OK. It’s a learning point. But we’re bringing it all for provincials and hopefully we can win the one that matters.”
TOP 10 SHOOT-OUT
Kiera Pemberton (Walnut Grove)
Malia Lenz (Abbotsford)
Marina Radocaj (R.A. McMath)
Makena Anderson (SMUS)
Kanani Coon (Okanagan Mission)
Tia Rowell (Walnut Grove)
Avery Sussex (Riverside)
Kiana Kaczur (South Kamloops)
Eva Ruse (Mulgrave)
Avery Geddes (SMUS)
Presley Hopf Okanagan Mission)
Kyanna Knodel (Walnut Grove)
Natalie Curley (Riverside)
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