LANGLEY — Roko Maric’s outstretched arms were a huge part of the post-game celebration Tuesday evening on the court at the Langley Events Centre.
But truth be told, the bigger story was the presence the outstretched arms of Vancouver College’s 6-foot-8 Grade 10 forward had over all four quarters of the final game of the 2021-22 B.C. junior boys basketball season.
With Maric’s albatross-like wingspan wreaking havoc on virtually every shooting angle Burnaby South shooters and drivers could find, the Fighting Irish had just enough to hold off the rival Rebels 51-45 and complete a perfect 31-0 campaign with its first provincial junior title since 2012.
Burnaby South, the dominant junior boys program ever since, was aiming to win its fourth title in the last nine provincial tournaments.
“Obviously he means so much to us,” said Vancouver College head coach Ryan Shams said of Maric, a lean, long and nimble piece of work whose 15 points and keen rebounding ability were impressive in such a high-stakes game, yet to the purist took a back seat to the countless times his body positioning and length ratcheted up the degree of difficulty on so many Burnaby South shot attempts.
“Without him, we’d be a different team, just with that paint presence he provides,” said Shams of the younger brother of UBC forward Toni Maric. “I really think that he was the best defensive player in this this tournament, and he’s our guy. He kept his cool throughout this game, and you can see that he has a bright future.”
Afterwards, Maric was named the B.C. championship MVP.
Yet as vicious a swath as the Irish cut through the field this season en route to the championship, Tuesday’s game, against a much smaller but completely unflappable Burnaby South team, was anyone’s game until the absolute 11th-hour moments of the fourth quarter.
When the Rebels’ Tyler Crossley dropped a triple to pull Burnaby South within 44-38 with 2:56 left, the game’s outcome was still a coin flip.
Yet if you believe in one of the game’s oldest axioms, the one that says that without some measure of so-called easy baskets, tough games are nearly impossible to win, well then maybe it wasn’t as close as it seemed because the Irish made the Rebels claw for everything they got.
“My guys, they worked their asses off to get here,” said an emotional Burnaby South head coach Rupia Dahia, wiping away the tears and being embraced by his fellow coaches moments after the final horn sounded.
“We ran kilometres on the track after every practice trying to get in shape for this tournament,” he continued. “We did everything we could to compete against this juggernaut. We gave everything we could and we gave them their closest game of the year.”
With Maric upping the efficiency of the Irish offence with his ability to offensive rebound and score second-chance points, the rest of the line-up just needed to do what they did best.
Guard Aidan Lear played to his explosive dribble-drive and pull-up game to the tune of a team-high 16 points, Cole Pryputsch was his usual hustling self and finished with nine points, while guards Finn Teasdale and Vincent Velasquez added seven and four points respectively.
Lordrikk Gutierrez, Burnaby South’s fearless, under-sized 5-foot-9 barrell-chested guard-forward was as impactful to his team as Maric was to the Irish.
Regardless of any perceived barriers his size might have at every future level on the hoops ladder, he is an unmistakable talent whose skills are just now catching up to the heart he brings in every seeming mismatch he faces.
In fact, even a super team like the Irish had to throw everything including the kitchen sink at him just to slow him down, and he still willed himself to a co-game high 16 points.
Roan Mendoza, a ball-handling whiz with an unpredictable hesitation stutter, added nine points.
Meanwhile, the Grade 9 Crossley, standing just shy of six feet, has already begun to show the makings of becoming a linch-pin forward.
He can hit open shots and his offensive game is still a blank canvas. Yet it’s on the defensive side where he flashed an ability to be a natural disruptive force.
“It can go either way,” Dahia said of the loss. “And it’s a learning lesson either way, too. We’ll be back, and we’ll be stronger next year.”
For his part, Shams knew that his team’s final game of the season would be its toughest, especially coming against a South team coached by his good friend Dahia.
“Whenever you play Burnaby South it’s going to be an absolute battle and I didn’t expect anything less,” he said. “I told my guys that they are fighters, and who knows what would have happened if there were a couple of more minutes left on the clock.”
Maric, the man of the hour, admitted a perfect ending of this magnitude was beyond his dreams at the start of the season.
But it was Shams, he said, who never let the pressure of painting a Mona Lisa get in the way of adding the final few brushstrokes to a masterpiece.
“Honestly, it feels great,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting this kind of (an undefeated) ending, but we just worked hard and tried to get better every day.
“And, I feel like our coach really showed us how to stay composed in these kinds of tight situations. In the end, we were able to pull it out.”
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