A rivalry for the ages.
Boston Celtics versus Los Angeles Lakers, North Carolina Tar Heels versus Duke Blue Devils? These ancient basketball rivalries can get any hoops fan excited. However, for the Vancouver high school basketball fans who packed the newly built St. John's school gym, which served as neutral-site host on Wednesday night for the independent school AAA league tie-breaker game, there is no better rivalry than St. George's Saints versus Vancouver College Fighting Irish.
While Vancouver College is historically the most storied high school basketball program in British Columbia, this last decade has seen St. George's press beyond the traditional sports from the old country to embrace basketball as a worthy enterprise. In doing so, St. George's has elevated the pressure on Vancouver College faithful. A perennial Provincial contender, Vancouver College has not won a Senior Boys Provincial Championship since 1967. As frustrating as their narrow misses have been, none have been more climactically exasperating as the 2009 Provincial Championship Game in which St. George's mercurial forward Emerson Murray drained a pull-up jump shot from the baseline at the buzzer to defeat Vancouver College.
Wednesday night's game served as the tie-breaker of a three-game series to determine the 2012 Lower Mainland Independent League Champion. The importance of this pendulum-snaring result was not lost on any knowledgeable fan in the gym. For the victor, an assured berth in the Lower Mainland AAA Championships necessary to qualify for the AAA Provincial Championships. For the runner-up; frustration, anxiety, and a faint hope of appeal. No assurance their season will continue. Both teams took the court with this knowledge and both teams competed with no regrets.
In a game that saw great competitiveness, intensity, and raw fan fervor, Vancouver College maintained single-digit leads throughout most of the contest. However, with just under 40 seconds left in the game, St. George's Saints narrowed the margin to two points at 51-49. This is when the nerves seen by both teams earlier in the game were calm in the veins of Fighting Irish leader Isaiah Solomon who stepped up to the line for two free throws. After making the first shot, Solomon missed the second but chased down the offensive rebound to put a dagger in the Saints hopes. This venerable Solomon's wisdom enabled him make five of six free throws down the stretch to seal the Saints' fate 57-49. After the game, Solomon explained his ability to focus: "Just being calm. It was a lot of pressure just knowing the importance of the free throws. I just took my time and hit them." Solomon further elaborated on the meaning of the St. George's versus Vancouver College engagement: "It's one of the biggest rivalries in B.C. It's one of the best atmospheres to play in. We look forward to this game all year."
Post-game, executive director of Canada Basketball Howard Kelsey effusively commented: "I thought it was a fantastic game, a fantastic rivalry. I think we need more rivalries like this in high school in all sports. It's good for the community. It makes the community vibrant and alive to be involved in healthy activities." UBC Mens Basketball head coach Kevin Hanson was also impressed.
"Seeing a crowd like this bodes well for the basketball community. That was as intense a game as I've seen this year." More to the point for the UBC hoops guru looking to bolster next year's squad: "There are a lot of players on both teams who have the potential to play post-secondary basketball".
The humble and thoughtful Vancouver College head coach Lloyd Scrubb added some reflective perspective after a gritty victory. "For both teams we can't be assured of a second berth. It put an enormous amount of pressure on the game, a tremendous amount of pressure for the kids. You get these games when you have a rivalry."
As the lonely final seconds counted down on the clock, Vancouver College fans in playful jest provided encouraging words to the distraught St. George's boosters: "Maybe next year, maybe next year, maybe next year!"
Whether next year comes early for St. George's by appeal for an extra playoff berth could be known this week. (Read accompanying story.)
Down the street from St. John's at Prince of Wales secondary, the public school City Championships semi-finals were also being held on Wednesday night. Kitsilano Blue Demons defeated Sir Winston Churchill Bulldogs 64-62 and two-time defending City Champions Sir Charles Tupper Tigers clawed back the upstart King George Dragons 65-48. These results set up this much anticipated public school rivalry pairing last year's finalists. Tip-off is on Friday at 7:30 p.m.