SURREY — It didn’t start well. Down 9-0 just a few minutes into the final, Lord Tweedsmuir Panthers looked for answers, yet again, to a dilemma that had plagued them throughout their run at the 2017 senior AAA girls provincial high school basketball championships.
How would they turn things around this time?
Ultimately, just the same way they’d done it each time before – by out-hustling and out-gunning the opposition.
By halftime, the Panthers had erased the gap. By the end of a monster third quarter, they led by 10. It was a margin they’d carry through to the final buzzer as they cruised to a 67-57 victory over the Abbotsford Panthers in the midst of a boisterous, jam-packed Langley Events Centre Saturday night (March 4).
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It was the first AAA provincial girls championship for the school in 68 years – an achievement not lost on coach Curtis McRae.
“We’re a notoriously slow-starting team. I wish I knew why,” McRae later said with a laugh.
“But we never lose faith. We’re a second-half team, and we make adjustments better than most teams. We have a high-powered offense and we went in at half-time and figured out what they were doing.
“We had a solid game plan. We wanted to stay in our gaps and play disciplined basketball. Normally we play a trapping style, but this game plan was not to do that. Once we refocused our kids, we knew we would win the title.”
For the Panthers, it was a fitting conclusion to a strong season that saw them go 7-1 in league play.
“We finished fourth (in the provincial tournament) last year. We lost two core players from that team – Ali Norris to UBC and Emma Jones to UBC Okanagan – but we felt solid going into this year. We have the best point guard in the province in Maryn (Budiman), and Shelvy Grewal is probably one of the top five shooters in B.C.”
And that’s not all.
McRae points to players like Brianna Boufford, who gets all the “nasty assignments” of guarding the other team’s best players, and Shania Mander and Hameet Sidhu, who were “both huge for us.”
“We have a ton of top-end talent, but the difference tonight was that we rolled nine players. They rolled six. When you have eight or nine players who can go in and contribute, the other team runs out of gas. Our bench players gave us huge minutes.”
Still, there’s no doubting the contributions of star athlete Budiman. Looking typically dangerous all night, and a commanding presence even when she didn’t have the ball, Budiman scored 25 for the Panthers, including 11 in that all-important third quarter.
“We give her a ton of freedom,” said McRae when asked how he coaches someone of Budiman’s obvious talent.
“We give her all the freedom in the world to be our floor general. But she’s still a 17-year-old kid.
“We do a lot of in-game coaching with her,” the coach added. “It’s not so much about teaching her skill. She’s a phenomenal talent and one of the fastest players in the province. It’s more the finer detail, like, ‘Here’s the footwork you use in this scenario.’”
Budiman, who’s off to the basketball program at California Baptist University next year, was named tournament MVP, while Grewal, with 16 points in the final game, was selected a first-team all-star.
McRae, who just finished his fifth season coaching essentially the same group of players, from Grade 8 ball through to Senior AAA, is adamant the right team prevailed.
“We’re the undisputed champ this year. We beat Oak Bay. We beat Panorama. We beat Abby. We beat the best. It’s not like we ducked anybody.”
Then how was Tweedsmuir seeded eighth in the provincials tourney, despite being officially ranked #2 this season? Because they lost to the very same Abbotsford squad in the second round of the Fraser Valley Championship a few weeks ago. That’s all it takes.
“We felt like we made mistakes in that loss to Abby. We were up 25 points in the third quarter and let it slip away.”
Lessons learned, lessons applied.
“We’re building a house. Every year we add a new year of foundation. Each year we build on what we’ve done in the past.”
Next year, the Panthers will lose Budiman, Boufford, Mander and Jessica Vidovic. That foundation will need to be extra strong.
POST-GAME PHOTOS BELOW BY GORD GOBLE