The perfect season stayed intact for the Semiahmoo Totems senior girls basketball team Saturday night at the Langley Events Centre.
But oh boy, was it close.
The No. 1-ranked Totems started uncharacteristically slow against the No. 2 Walnut Grove Gators of Langley, but dug themselves out of an early hole and hit enough shots in the second half to win the triple-A senior girls basketball provincial championship 72-61.
With the win, Semiahmoo finishes the season a perfect 40-0.
In the first half, however, they looked nothing like a team that was set to stay undefeated, as Walnut Grove’s suffocating defence – combined with a handful of missed shots from the Totems – kept the South Surrey team in single digits after the first quarter, trailing the hometown Gators 26-9.
“When I looked up and saw nine points on the board, I thought, ‘My goodness, I hope we get to double digits,” said Totems coach Allison McNeill.
“We just really battled and showed a lot of character… there was no quit in them.”
McNeill, a longtime coach at SFU and Canada’s women’s national team, admitted that trailing by as many points as they were – and for as long as they were – was unfamiliar territory for her young squad, which despite a starting lineup that boasts four Grade 10s, ran roughshod over their league competition all season.
It was an unusual spot to be in “and not one we wanted to be in, let me tell you,” the coach laughed.
Though the Gators’ defence, as well as some offensive jitters, kept the Totems’ offence from clicking, the veteran coach was buoyed by the fact that her team was also playing good defence, holding a talented, senior-laden Walnut Grove team to just 28 first-half points.
“I knew our defence would hold, because we’ve been strong defensively all year,” she said.
Semiahmoo played much of the first half without their lone Grade 12 starter, Faith Dut, after the six-foot-three University of Florida-bound centre found herself on the bench due to early foul trouble. She picked up two quick fouls in the first quarter, and added another early in the second.
“Not having Faith out there hurt us, but what also hurt us was Walnut Grove’s defence, and we just missed some shots. We had some decent shots, we just missed them,” McNeill said.
Trailing by as many as 17 points in the second quarter, the South Surrey team narrowed the game to 28-21 by the buzzer, thanks to a pair of step-back three-pointers from Deja Lee.
In the third quarter, a six-point run made it a one-point game, and Semiahmoo took the lead midway through the third.
“We always say the first five minutes of the third quarter is the most important part of the game,” said Semiahmoo’s Izzy Forsyth, who finished the game with 17 points.
“It feels pretty amazing. Being down seven at halftime – and almost 20 before that – it feels pretty great to have made that comeback.”
McNeill said the team settled down during halftime – Forsyth admitted there may have been some early-game nerves that caused them to start “a bit slow” – and was a much more confident team in the second half.
“One thing we said (at halftime) was that we were lucky to be down only seven, because we hadn’t played that well at all,” she explained. “They battled back and showed a lot of character.”
Dut returned to the court in the third quarter, and ended up leading the offence with 23 points and 13 rebounds. Tara Wallack had 13 and Deja Lee had 19 en route to being named the game and tournament’s most valuable player.
Walnut Grove was led by Jessica Wisotzki, who had 28 points and 13 rebounds, while Tavia Rowell had 19 points and nine boards. The Gators also got six points and a strong defensive effort from Rolande Taylor, who had a dozen rebounds before fouling out with seven minutes to play.
“They made it difficult for us to score and to move and to do what we wanted. They disrupted us. And once Ro fouled out, we had trouble stopping Faith,” said Walnut Grove coach Darren Rowell.
Considering their youth – Forsyth, Wallack, Lee and fellow starter Rashaun Bindra all have two years left at the senior level – it will surprise no one if Saturday night’s championship serves as a coming out party of sorts for Semiahmoo, who stand to be top contenders for next season and beyond.
“I think we’ll be in the hunt next year and the year after, as long as the kids keep working and trying to get better,” McNeill said.
“We’ll have a couple good juniors come up, and obviously, we’re going to miss Faith, so we’ll look a bit different (next year), but we’re just going to try to get better, that’s all.”
Boys tip off
The BC quad-A senior boys basketball championships tip off Wednesday at the LEC, with Surrey’s Holy Cross Crusaders and Cloverdale’s Lord Tweedsmuir Panthers in the hunt for a provincial title.
Holy Cross was named the tournament’s No. 1 seed when the bracket was announced Sunday afternoon, while the Panthers will enter as the No. 9 seed in the 16-team event.
Holy Cross will open the tournament against No. 16 ranked North Peace, while Tweedsmuir will play No. 8 West Vancouver. The tournament continues throughout the week, with the championship game set for Saturday night.
There are no Surrey teams in the triple-A tournament, which also begins Wednesday, but Pacific Academy will play in the double-A event, as the No. 15 seed.
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