The King George Dragons are loyal to their winning game plan, a strategy five years in the making that can be summed up with a single word: passion.
"It was our team goal from the start of Grade 8 to make the provincials," said senior boys head coach Darko Kulic. "One, play smart. Two, play with heart. Three, have some fun and enjoy the moments."
The Dragons punched their ticket to the AA B.C. championships as the No. 1 Lower Mainland seed after edging out St. Thomas More 67-55 Feb. 23 at home to win the regional tournament. In the semi-final one night earlier, they defeated Vancouver rival St. Patrick's Celtics 80-76 in a heated overtime contest.
The win over the Celtics was the Dragons' most memorable of their remarkable 34-4 season, said Kulic. "This game was just another, different level of amazing. Both teams worked really hard and both never gave up, which made for an amazing game. I was proud of our guys and their guys for giving it their all and showing what playoff basketball is really all about."
As the clock ticked down, the Celtics and Dragons both sought an advantage from outside and drove the score skyward in what Kulic described as "a three-point shoot-out."
"In the last three minutes, [_] the game went nuts. Both teams hit five threes each in a row, back and forth to send the game into overtime.
"We have nothing but respect for St. Pat's and their coaching staff. They play a lot like us."
Kulic is a graduate of the West End high school and played with the Dragons when they won the Lower Mainland tournament in 2005 and then soared to a fifth-place finish at the B.C. championships.
The Dragons didn't advance to provincials last year, and the loss drove their impassioned season even as they battled injuries.
"It was our goal to stay focused and determined to get another chance," said Kulic.
Against St. Thomas More in the Lower Mainland finale, the Dragons played a team that had them nervous. A buzzer-beating shot from Kristian Hildebrandt made the difference in an earlier, regular-season meeting, but Kulic didn't want to repeat the nail-biting finish.
"We studied to see what worked well that game and what didn't. The first game we felt we were letting them get their shots up too easy, so one of our goals was to close out better and not let them shoot anything easy," said Kulic, commending the team's coaching, dedication and skill. "We knew we had to turn our intensity to another level."
As tournament host, the Dragons worked every possible advantage and ultimately claimed the win and the tournament crown.
"This is where our supporters really came through, helping get the boys pumped," said Kulic. "We had an old alumni Lanzer Permalino come in and DJ. This was very cool and gave an exciting atmosphere.
"It was such a great feeling to win the AA lower Mainlands, especially in front of our family, friends and former alumni who really helped push us over the top with their support."
The AA senior boys provincial championships are set for March 7 to 10 in Kamloops.