Wiz Khalifa's "Black and Yellow" is blasting through the Langley Events Centre. It's the perfect song for warm-up, before the 4A Boys Final between the Burnaby South Rebels and the Kelowna Owls. Both of the teams colours are indeed black and yellow and it feels like, from the players to the coaches, everyone's outfit is perfectly described by the Wiz Khalifa song. There is one nit-picky exception, however. Burnaby South head coach Mike Bell is wearing a dark grey shirt underneath his jacket.
In fact, Mike Bell is wearing the exact same shirt he wore two years ago in the championship game. They won then, and they won Saturday.
Needless to say, coach Bell is a pretty superstitious guy.
"The year that we won in 2012, we didn't win any other provincials. Our [Grade] 8's didn't win, or 9's didn't win nor our 10's," said Bell. [This year] when our 8's went down early, the juniors went down early, I looked at the guys and I'm like, 'this is running the same scenario,' if the juniors don't pull this off, we could win this again at the senior level, and sure enough I'm walking away."
"Feels amazing, feels amazing," said Bell. of his second championship in three years.
The Burnaby South basketball program has some championship pedigree. Even though the seniors have won their second title in three years, the Grade 11's on this team are back-to-back champions, having won last year as juniors.
"We coach together, we're a family," said Bell as to why the Rebels program keeps churning out winners. "At the end of the day all of our coaching staff — we're a family. If you watch throughout the provincials, we all were there, one or another sitting on each other's bench, helping each other, trying to coach together. Whatever adjustments we need to do, we do it as a family."
That translates to not only this team but also the entire program. The Rebels are not just a guard-heavy team but it's that way throughout the program. They have to do it by committee, the way the coaches in the program coach by committee.
"We do it just via hard work, the same way that Kelowna did it all year," said coach Bell. "The guards just have to work hard, and anticipate passes and pressure altogether."
The 4A Boys tournament Most Valuable Player is a guard, the Rebels Justin Sunga, who put up 15 points and had four assists in the win. Fellow guard Jareb Pineda chipped in 9 points, dished out four assists and had four steals.
But the team also knows how to use their bigs. Karan Aujla had 13 points and seven rebounds and Player of the Game, and the only player from the senior Rebels championship team from 2018, Sasha Vujisic had 15 points and was a monster on the board, grabbing 20 rebounds. There was already some championship DNA on this team and it shone through in a big way in the form of Vujisic.
However, all that can be brushed aside for the superstition. The Rebels had struggled in the third quarter of the entire tournament. So this time, coach Bell decided he needed to give his guys a little extra time to get ready. In the dressing room, he set a timer to make sure his boys were out there to shoot with four minutes left until the start of the third frame.
"We played our best third quarter of the tournament," said coach Bell.
And sure enough, he's walking away a champion, once again.
One year ago, Clay Kurtz had to choose between basketball and hockey. Today, he won Most Valuable Player in the 3A tournament for the. It's safe to say he made the right choice.
"I told the family that I'll support them either way," said G.W Graham head coach Jake Mouritzen. "I love that family, Clay's a special kid. All we did is preach what we know and that's family, that's who we are."
"If he chose basketball, he would be part of our family and we'd support him."
When it comes to family, things get personal. You get as invested in losses as you do in wins, because every second, every minute, everyday matters.
A couple of months ago, the G.W Graham Grizzlies lost the Chancellor title to the Duchess Park Condors in blowout fashion. Today, they defeated them by a score of 79-67 to become the 3A Provincial champions.
"I think it's important that you say that at half time in that game it was 68 Duchess Park, 31 Graham," said coach Mouritzen. "So we gave up one less point in the whole game than we did in that half in the Chancellor's final — feels pretty damn good."
But it didn't come easy. "Our whole season flipped from that day on," said Mourtizen about the earlier loss to Duchess Park. "We worked every day remembering that if he worked hard and got wins we would get a chance to [play them] again." Family can be obsessive in that way.
In the week leading up to this game, coach Mourtizen introduced a dozen new sets on offence and a new hybrid man-zone defence they hadn't used at all this season.
"We wanted to show things that we hadn't shown before," said coach Mourtizen. "[Duchess Park Condors head coach] Jordan Yu is one of the best coaches out there and I knew we would have to out-coach him in order win today."
"It was a battle but we won," said Mourtizen.
His most valuable warrior of the tournament, Clay Kurtz, proved to be exactly that in the tournament. "He's had a jammed up thumb for a month but he just battled through it." Kurtz put up a 24 point and 12 rebound double-double and had three steals in the championship game.
For Mouritzen and Kurtz, the journey towards this championship began twelve months ago, when Kurtz chose basketball over hockey.
"It was really tough," said Kurtz about his decision. "I just had to see where my heart is but it definitely pays off."
"He's worked every day since that since that day that he picked basketball," said coach Mourtizen. "Today, he came out and showed the province that he is the real deal and he's going places in basketball."
Family can go crazy chasing some dreams; for Clay Kurtz it was basketball and for his G.W Graham Grizzlies it was this win over Duchess Park. Now, they're champs.
After halftime, the Charles Hays Rainmakers started to really make it rain.
Charles Hays held a 21-12 lead after the first quarter, but the King George Dragons would force that lead to shrink to just 29-25 going into the half. But then, last year's champions came out to play. Lead by versatile big man and the 2A tournament's Most Valuable Player Kai Leighton and agile point guard Tyler Jones, the Rainmakers walked off the floor after 3 quarters with a much more commanding 47-34 lead. The Rainmakers would go on to win 67-45 with 21 points and 15 boards from Leighton and 19 points from Jones.
"The start of the second half is a crucial part of the game," said Rainmakers head coach Mel Bishop. "The first five minutes of the second half, you want to get the first run and try to get some stops, I think that's really important."
"Just swing the ball faster and the shots will fall," said MVP Leighton about his team's hot start in the championship game's second half. "We needed to get more inside touches to open up space outside."
Leighton was the main eater when his team fed the ball inside. Having a player that size who can play both inside and outside is a luxury for any coach but it's his rebounding — "He can rebound the heck out of the basketball," said coach Bishop — and his defence that his coach thinks of first.
Leighton thinks the same way. "That's where I take the most pride; the points will come but if I can hold my guy to under 10 points and grab 20 rebounds, that's important to me."
In many ways, the Rainmakers and the Dragons are very similar; the offence of both teams is propelled by an elite big who can both handle the ball and get to work inside, and a lead guard who can make plays for himself and his teammates. The Dragons' counterparts to the Rainmakers dynamic duo of Leighton and Jones were big man Nikola Guzina, who had 17, and Alejandro Rios, who put up 13. Rios showed off his handles and his hops throughout the game, using his speed and bounce to get to the rim when there were no other options. As for Guzina, his ability to draw players into the middle enables his team to play with more space on the perimeter, not unlike what Leighton brings to Charles Hays.
But the comparisons end there. The Rainmakers went back to back, winning again despite lose key players, such as Liam McChesney who now plays for the Utah State Aggies and will be heading to March Madness. The Dragons reached their second championship game in three years, but have yet to win one.
A key factor that swung the game in the Rainmakers favour was a Player of the Game performance from Grade 11 player Caden Pagens, who used his size to put up 15 points with just 8 shots.
"He takes up a lot of space, he's got good hands - he can finish with either hand - and he's got good post moves," said coach Bishop.
Coach Bishop didn't necessarily expect his team to be back in the finals after winning last year, but he knew he had the pieces - a good starting group and a strong bench, as well as some of the younger guys from last year who took the jump this year. If you think about it, next year they'll have some young guys from this year who will have taken the jump, which should give them a good starting group. And if they have a strong bench, maybe we should expect them to be here again in 2021.
Written by: Mohak Sood
Photos by: Mohak Sood and Leanne Ostapovitch