It was perhaps the most surprising and incredible run to a provincial championship in recent memory.
The Burnaby South Rebels, who came into the 2018 tournament as the eighth seed with little to no fanfare, went on a run for the ages, winning the 4A Provincial Championship by playing a brand of basketball that emphasized defence and teamwork. That style saw them beat the favourites to win it all and brought the banner back to their high school for the first time in over 35 years.
Here is the story of how it came together, from four people who were directly involved in all of it — forward Jusuf Sehic, guards Noah Pastrana and Vince Sunga, and head coach Mike Bell.
I. The Road to Get There
Burnaby South’s place in the Provincial Tournament was in doubt until the very last moment. They were forced to play in the third place game against Kitsilano, with the winner booking a place to the tournament.
The Rebels had played them last year in the third place game as well, but lost and missed out on the provincial tournament. Not only was this game about getting into the tournament, it was about exorcising the demons that ended their season early the year previous.
Mike Bell: We had a lot of pride and we wanted to get back. It was the first time we’d played Kits all year and really wanted to get back at them for knocking us out and taking that chance at provincials the year before.
Noah Pastrana: We all knew what was on the line. So we came in knowing that if we played together and followed the game plan, we should be good from there. After we knew we made it to provincials, we knew we were going to be good from there.
Mike Bell: This year at halftime I just asked the kids, and I repeated it during a timeout during the second half, where do you want to end your season? Do you want to end it at the LEC? Or do you want to end it at the Oval? Kids bounced back and we dominated the second half.
Jusuf Sehic: It felt like a curse had been lifted. It was always the third place game at lower mainlands, and finally we won even though we were down at halftime. It felt nice to finally go to provincials, especially in my senior year.
II. Provincial Mindset
Heading into the provincial tournament the Rebels were the eighth ranked team in the 4A bracket. It’s a far cry from when they were ranked before the beginning of the season — fifth in the province and the top ranked team from the Lower Mainland zone.
Vince Sunga: We were really hungry [heading into provincials]. We got a second chance which was really good.
Jusuf Sehic: We knew we wouldn’t be ranked as high as we should have been, we didn’t have that good of a regular season. Our mindset was just to as far as we could and just play for each other. We knew we could win the entire time, just keep our eyes on the prize and go for it all.
Mike Bell: Mindset was good. We had solid practices lead up to it. [. . .] . We just kept practicing scenarios, preaching defence defence defence, keeping our man in front of us, contesting shots. That’s something I thought we did very well throughout the tournament.
The first game saw Burnaby South face off against Lord Tweedsmuir. In a hard fought game, the Rebels came out on top 80-60.
Jusuf Sehic: The game plan going into that game was basically a lot of high-low. It started working against Kitsilano, and into provincials we knew we had two very tall guys in me and Sasha, so going into that we were going to use us two as much as possible. No shooting and less me and Sasha getting a touch for the kickouts.
Mike Bell: Shut down Dylan [Kinley]. Really pressure Dylan and take Dylan apart and tempo and use our size. Which is a hard thing to do, saying push tempo and then having our bigs come in and do that. We wanted to be able to change at the same time as controlling them.
Vince Sunga: He told us this might be the last game for us to be successful, but we did well. We played as a team, we played together and we listened to coach. Throughout the whole tournament we actually were consistent in playing together. We communicated and we fixed on whatever we had to work on.
Noah Pastrana: I think I was just shooting the ball well. I was moving the ball, and I just took shots that I would normally take, but they just went in this time. It was the first game of provincials, so I knew that I had to step up.
III. Breaking Oak Bay
Perhaps the biggest upset of the tournament was delivered by the Rebels. Burnaby South defeated top seeded Oak Bay, holding the Vancouver Island team to just 66 points.
Mike Bell: Before that game coach Smith basically preached ‘why not us?’ That’s what he said the whole pregame, and then we talked about being physical and taking away their open shots. Again we wanted to contest shots, [and] we didn’t want to give up any open shots. And also keeping Diego in front of us. We did a pretty good job although he put up some big numbers on us, we made sure it was just him.
Noah Pastrana: We had the same game plan through each and every game. Our plan is to win, and every game plan is designed to win. We knew they were the best team in the province and we knew that we were the underdogs. We came in with the mindset that if we win, it’s going to be an upset.
The highlight of that game was the ankle-breaker Noah Pastrana put on Oak Bay’s deadly guard Diego Maffia. Although he still scored 44 points, the move inflicted on Maffia gave the Rebels a huge momentum boost that carried them to victory.
Noah Pastrana: I saw Jusuf grabbing the rebound for us. The ball was coming, and I caught the ball. I jabbed and I saw him fall for the fake, so I went right to the left and I just crossed him and went for the layup.
Jusuf Sehic: A move like that gives you so much energy for the entire quarter and the rest of the game. Any sort of momentum they had up to that point, an ankle breaker like that just stops the momentum right away because it’s really humiliating to have your ankles broken.
Mike Bell: That was just a dirty drop. He broke him and with the finish. It got the whole bench hyped, you saw my reaction, I was ready to go. It was great energy it built for us.
Vince Sunga: It was crazy. It was so bad that we were about to get a technical. Players were going on the court, it was nuts. That started us, that fueled us.
IV. Just One Away
On paper, Burnaby South had a easier than expected matchup in the semi final. The Belmont Bulldogs were the 13th seed, and had pulled off two big upsets of their own to reach this point in the tournament.
It would have been easy for this team to get complacent and take this game lightly after such an emotional victory the night before. However, the team regrouped and beat them 78-66, punching their ticket to the provincial final.
Jusuf Sehic: Going into that game, we were talking as a team and we knew Belmont were a lower seed, but we knew that they earned their way to that semi-final game so we shouldn’t treat them as a lower seed. After Oak Bay, we were treating them with just as much thought and care. We did not want to lose and if we hesitated for a second, we knew they would capitalized on that.
Noah Pastrana: We’ve made that mistake before where we would underestimate a team, and we lost because of it. We kind of learned from that mistake, and heading into provincials we were better prepared.
Vince Sunga: You couldn’t be overconfident whoever you played. We treated every team like we were playing Oak Bay. We always practiced for that thinking ‘Yeah this is Oak Bay we have to show them what we’re made of, what we can do and what we’re capable of.’
Mike Bell: We just talked about sticking to us and preparing for the game we wanted to run. [. . .] That game we actually shot pretty poorly, I think we shot 2 for 23 from beyond the arc. We were still able to come up successful which was nice.
Their bid for a finals appearance was in doubt late, as Belmont went on a run late in the game to cut the lead down to single digits.
Jusuf Sehic: For us it was just don’t let a single player or even a run get us down. Basketball is a game of runs. Even if they were going to bring the lead back down, we just needed to have our own run to bring it back up, and that’s what we did.
Vince Sunga: We just adjusted to the moment. Us Grade twelves have been playing together since grade eight. Throughout the whole journey we’ve been learning that it’s all about what you can do to make the whole situation better and what adjustments you can make. There’s some things you can’t always control but you just have to stay strong mentally and keep on playing.
V. The Final Hurdle
The final placed Burnaby South against Semiahmoo, the fourth seed who were led by two outstanding players in Adam Paige and Vlad Mihaila. The Totems were coming off a big victory themselves, beating a talented Tamanawis team.
Noah Pastrana: I couldn’t sleep that night all. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It’s a feeling I’ve always wanted to be in and being in that moment, I couldn’t believe it was actually there.
Vince Sunga: It’s kind of like a dream. You can’t really believe what’s going to happen next. But whatever happens, it’s history so you just have to give it everything. It’s our last game in high school. You have to do everything that you have to do. All the hours and hard work you put in, you have to give it your all.
Mike Bell: For my heart it’s probably not a good thing, but every time for every game I showed up to the stadium at the same time, sat in the same chair, had the same process of drinks in the stadium. I had a Sprite, coffee, Coke and then a water before every game. I’m very superstitious so I stuck to that before every game. Can’t say I slept much at all though. It was just nice for me coaching wise to get back to a provincial final where I haven’t been in a long time.
Jusuf Sehic: I remember [coach Bell] telling us to not even watch the video, and just stay focused on the game. I remember telling the guys don’t focus on the video just be ready for the game. Even though I saw it after and it was amazing.
Mike Bell: We knew Vlad and Adam would score theirs. We wanted to keep Paige to the outside, and we wanted to limit his touches inside. He’s a good rebounder and can finish around the rim. We knew Vlad was going to get Vlad’s and we just wanted to limit what everyone else does.
What was the defining moment from a Burnaby South perspective came late in game. Jusuf Sehic hit a midrange jumper, then screamed to the heavens unable to contain his joy.
Jusuf Sehic: Right after I hit that shot I remember I was running back, and I was going to stay quiet and then I just yelled out for no reason. But I don’t regret doing it. I was happy because it pushed the lead a little bit further and it was kind of the nail in the coffin.
Mike Bell: Jusuf’s mid range game is just on another level. When we did a reflection on last year and we were going back to players you like and who you want to emulate your game after, Jusuf chose DeMar DeRozan and that was strictly on the midrange game. That is something that he has worked on extremely hard. If he shoots something in the midrange, [I’m] fully confident it’s going in.
The final buzzer saw the Burnaby South Rebels win their school’s first provincial basketball championship in 39 years. For players, coaches, and everyone involved with the program, it is a moment they won’t soon forget.
Noah Pastrana: It was just surreal. I couldn’t believe it. I can't really describe it in words.
Jusuf Sehic: I myself wasn’t paying attention to the clock at all. I was kind of thinking about it with three minutes left, but as soon as I thought about it I focused right back into the game because I was thinking ‘don’t let them bring it back.’ I was so focused on that I didn’t realize that we had won until Noah starts running and throws the ball as high as possible. For a second I was thinking ‘what is he doing’ and then I realised the game is over and we’re actually provincial champions.
Mike Bell: Not until zero. Not until i saw zeros. I felt very confident going into the tournament, but not the actual ‘it happened’ factor until zeros on the clock.
In the chaos on the court afterwards, players and coaches alike found people close to them to share the moment with and thank them for all they’ve done to help support them.
Noah Pastrana: When all my buddies came and gave me a hug, my parents, Puni, the coaches, it was a surreal moment.
Vince Sunga: The atmosphere was different. Everyone acknowledge you and said congratulations.
Mike Bell: I just wanted to get back to everyone who helped me to get to become the coach I am. I’ve seen a lot of people down the road, been around a lot of coaches. Greg Matic was the one who actually got me started here, and he was actually my coach when I was younger. I grew up with his sons they’re actually my best friends. It was nice to get back and see Mr. Puni, see the Athletic Director and hug him because everything he’s done for this program has been on another level.
Jusuf Sehic: Without [my dad], I wouldn’t be nearly as good. A big thanks to all of my coaches who helped me develop but my dad, even with coaches, it’s all the hours that nobody sees, all the hours you spend alone shooting. He was always willing even after work to come shoot around with me in the park for a few hours and get shots up. If he wasn’t there I probably wouldn’t have hit that shot near the end there.
Written by: Nick Bondi