LANGLEY — Natalie Rathler turned her version of a basketball nightmare into a dream finish as the Final Four hit the Langley Events Centre on Friday.
The Walnut Grove Gators’ 6-foot senior forward watched as her team’s fortunes dipped the second she was forced off the floor midway through the third quarter of her team’s B.C. AAA Final Four clash with its arch-rivals, the Abbotsford Panthers.
But then, with steeled determination, she made a triumphant late return to the scene of her crime, and with dramatic purpose, helped carry her team to an 88-71 victory over the Panthers and the program’s first-ever berth in the B.C. AAA championship final, Saturday (5 p.m.) against the Kelowna Owls.
With Rathler providing post defence, rebounding and scoring in concert with the team’s star point producers Tavia Rowell and Jessica Wisotzki, the Gators had built a lead as large as 20 points at 45-25.
Yet over a span of mere seconds midway through the third quarter, she picked up two quick fouls which boosted her total to four and sent her to the bench.
Just like that, Abbotsford mounted a 15-4 run, eventually coming all the way back to tie the game at 59-59 on a 12-foot pull-up jumper by Sienna Lenz.
Saddled with four fouls yet successful because of the physicality she brings to the game, Rathler was caught in a precarious pickle, especially if she was going to help her team get to the final in her final year as a high school player.
“That was a heartbreaker for me,” Rathler said of the fourth foul, which came off a free throw. “I definitely needed to get my mental state back up. I felt hopeless, like I had let my team down. I just told myself I had to play smart the rest of the game and not pick up another. I had to give myself a mental talk, I had to make sure I was moving my feet and not my arms. I changed my game as to how I was moving and playing defence.”
It was a wow moment.
Upon her return, and not too soon after Abbotsford post Kelsey Roufosse fouled out of the game herself, Rathler took over.
Over one stretch, Rathler scored three straight buckets through a combination of cut, fakes, pivots and face-up dribble-drive action.
That put the Gators up 72-65 with 4:06 remaining, and from there, Walnut Grove just got stronger and stronger.
And while her totals didn’t match that of Rowell (31 points, 10 rebounds) or Wisotzki (23 points, eight rebounds), her presence along with her inspiring 22 points and 12 rebounds were every bit as important.
“It was a huge risk to have her out there (so early),” said Gators’ head coach Darren Rowell of Rathler. “But we couldn’t defend, we couldn’t rebound and we couldn’t score, so we had to go all in. Nat is so mature and plays with so much poise. It was fitting for her to come out here, on the biggest stage, against one of the best teams in the province, and play the way that she did.”
Abbotsford, which was attempting to get back to the final for a second straight season, could not find its groove early, and while gutsy in its rally, didn’t have enough to keep its comeback alive.
Sienna Lenz had 25 points and eight rebounds in the loss while Marin Lenz had 22 points and seven rebounds.
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