It was a game loaded with intriguing story lines and the Steveston-London Sharks provided Hollywood endings to all of them.
A star player desperately wanting to conclude her high school career on the province’s biggest stage. A legendary coach who hadn’t been to the “show” in 17 years. And, perhaps most importantly, a Richmond senior girls basketball league that was in need of some momentum.
The Sharks became the first Richmond school in 12 years to advance to the girls provincial “AAA” tournament after a 83-74 win over Burnaby South to finish third at the Lower Mainland “AAA” Championships. The team now has a week to prepare for the 16-team tournament which starts next Wednesday at the Langley Events Centre.
The tournament makes its debut in the Fraser Valley after being held for years at Capilano University. Ironically, Sharks’ head coach Les Hamaguchi had organized the event for the past 19 years. He stepped away from those duties to help this group of girls realize their potential and now will be coaching at the provincials for the first time since guiding the Steveston Packers back in 1996.
“Maybe it’s a bit of karma and my reward for (running) the tournament the last 19 years,” laughed Hamaguchi. “Probably back in the late 80s, we must have went eight or nine years in a row. It got to the point where you just put it on your schedule.
“I’m just really happy for our kids. Our group isn’t more talented than the last few years, it’s just that the circumstances changed with (traditional powerhouses) New West and Carson Graham having down years. At the beginning of the season, if I could project anything, it was going to come down to the third/fourth place game against Burnaby South.”
Still, beating the Rebels was no easy task. Not only where they the province’s ninth ranked team, they had defeated the Sharks twice this season and enjoyed home floor advantage.
It was going to take the Sharks’ best effort and they were up to the challenge, especially at the offensive end of the floor.
The Rebels enjoyed a 23-18 after one quarter but Steveston-London hung around thanks mainly to its perimeter game. The teams were tied at 40-40 at the half with four Sharks having hit for three-pointers, including Aliya Prasad’s buzzer-beater.
The Grade 10 standout did it again to end the third quarter and the Sharks took a 60-53 advantage into the final 10 minutes. The Rebels pulled within four points (72-68) with 1:57 remaining but would get not closer thanks to Anmol Mattu’s perfection at the free throw line. The dynamic senior point guard went 10-for-10 from the charity stripe, on her way to a 25-point performance.
Prasad played well beyond her years and finished with a monster 33-point performance, including six three-pointers. The Sharks also got terrific work from Alyssa Graeme and Emily Ip at the defensive end of the floor.
When the final buzzer sounded, Mattu stood at mid-court with her hands on her head, realizing what she had worked so hard for the past five years had become reality.
“No words can express how happy I am,” smiled the former national U17 team member. “I’m excited not just for myself, but for Les, our team and all of Richmond. This has been my goal since Grade 8 and as a team, we put in the time and hard work to get this done.
“I knew it was going to be a close game, going back and forth. What set us apart was our unsung heroes. Everybody stepped up and played at a different level.”
Following Mattu’s Grade 9 year, Hamaguchi looked at the talent depth of the girls basketball program and suggested she might want to transfer to another school.
“I told her, if she wanted to go to to the provincials then this might not be the team,” Hamaguchi recalled. “To her credit she wanted to stay. She loved the school, the program and the kids she plays with. I know for a fact she is thinking tonight of every senior kid she has played with. Especially during her Grade 8 and 9 years when they treated her like a little sister. “It’s the culture of our school. That’s just the way it is.”