The Burnaby South Rebels held a slim 68-67 advantage over the Winston Churchill Bulldogs with about a minute and a half remaining on the clock in the finals of the Telus Basketball Classic.
At that point, I was sitting on the press row next to tournament director Howard Kelsey, and while his mind was most likely preoccupied with thoughts of post-game speeches and scholarship presentations, he couldn’t help but just sit back and enjoy the barnburner that was unfolding before him.
“This couldn’t have been a better end to the tournament,” said Kelsey, summing up in words what the writers around him, the fans above him, and the players and coaches in front of him were surely thinking.
Burnaby South used a huge fourth quarter from its grade-11 players to gut out a 77-75 win over Churchill in the championship final of the 14th-annual Telus Basketball Classic, held at UBC’s War Memorial Gym on Saturday night.
In the final minute and change, Burnaby South’s Nic Trninic hit a pair of free-throws, knocked down a three, and went to the line again, this time giving the belligerent Churchill fans a razor-sharp stare between makes that implied “I just iced the game. You can be quiet now.”
Along with Trninic’s 10 points, Burnaby South was led by fellow grade-11 Jermaine Haley with 13 points. But despite the strong play from their underclassmen, the Rebels were steered for 40 minutes by seniors Taylor Smith – who scored 10 points – and big man Djordje Obradovic – who led all Rebels with 16.
“Four games in four days like this is tough. I think the kids were tired. But I was happy with the effort – we didn’t give up,” said Burnaby South head coach David Smith. “And you look for signs like that at this point in the year. I was unbelievably happy with the bench – EJ Mabone and Tyus Batiste – they went in there and turned it around when we were on a little energy lull.”
Burnaby South was focused early and led 25-16 at the end of the first quarter, as Obradovic torched the Bulldogs on the baseline, knocking down repeated 15 footers and scoring nine of his eventual 16 in the first 10 minutes.
But Churchill rallied back and went ahead midway through the second frame. South would quickly regain the lead, and Churchill managed to stay within one possession for the rest of the contest, but even when the Bulldogs took a one or two-point advantage, it still seemed like they were running uphill all night.
“I love my team,” said Churchill head coach Rick Lopez. “They work so hard and they never give up. They have such a good spirit and they play for each other. It was a great learning experience tonight, but in losing we learned a lot about ourselves and about our team and what we need to improve on.”
Grade-10 guard Izaiah Ugoalah led the Bulldogs in scoring with a game-high 22 points, and showed a skill level beyond his years – breaking down defenders, slashing his way to the cup, and finishing with a confidence not possessed by many 15-year-old players. On one play, he took the ball coast-to-coast and as he reached the three-point line, his defender began to overplay his left hand. Not a problem for the 6-4 Ugoalah, as he wrapped it behind his back, left his defender out to lunch, and calmly finished in traffic.
Grade-12 standout Mindy Minhas added 16 points, while younger brother Gary Minhas chipped in 11.
The elder Minhas, playing in his future War Memorial home, tried to take the game over with a couple of late attempts from outside that would have completely shifted the momentum, but the 6-5 combo guard couldn’t find nylon when he tried to tie the game at 76 with under 30 seconds remaining.
“We have so many guys on our team that can play – we’re so deep,” said Churchill’s Lopez. “Mindy didn’t have his best game scoring, but man was he a beast on the boards. It’s just unbelievable how much energy and the type of motor that kid has. If he didn’t do that on the boards, we wouldn’t have been in this game.”
Minhas did in fact use his strength and tenacity to go to work on the glass, but Haley’s silky-smooth transition game gave him the edge in the battle of the blue chips.
Haley’s long, sinewy frame and killer instinct allow him to score at will, but it’s those same features that make him an equally, if not better, distributor – a role fans were treated to in abundance during Saturday night’s final.
“He’s so unselfish, and he’s a really good team player,” said Smith. “But as I learn about him more as a player, he’ll get more involved offensively.”
Haley was forced to the bench late in the third quarter after picking up his fourth foul, but then didn’t check back in until there were less than five minutes left in the game.
“I was going to bring him in earlier, but those kids got the lead, and I thought to just roll with them,” said Smith. “Those guys need experience. Jermaine gets all of the experience and time on the court already, so I left them on because they were playing really well.”
Part of the reason for such a thrilling finish was that these teams are so close in comparison. They both scrap, they both remained relentless – especially Churchill, when chances became bleak in the final 30 seconds – and they both surround their stars with a supporting cast that can outshine their starters on any given night.
“It’s a learning opportunity,” said Lopez. “That Burnaby South team is well coached and tough. I think they’re one of the top teams in the province, easy.”
“We’re two even teams,” said Smith. “If we see each other 10 times, it’s going to go five and five.”
Luckily, we don’t have to wait too long to see a rematch, as the two squads face off this Thursday at Burnaby South – each team’s final exhibition match-up of the preseason.
After Saturday’s war at War Memorial, Thursday’s game is sure to be more emotionally charged than a typical December bout.
Preseason tournaments don’t mean much come March, but if the 14th edition of the Telus Basketball Classic is any indication of what high school hoop fans in B.C. should expect in the New Year, 2014 is guaranteed not to disappoint.
· Jonathan Kongbo – Holy Cross
· Gary Minhas – Winston Churchill
· Mindy Minhas – Winston Churchill
· Jermaine Haley – Burnaby South
· Djordje Obradovic – Burnaby South
· Izaiah Ugoalah – Winston Churchill
· Taylor Smith – Burnaby South