Holding the No. 1 ranking in B.C. for most of the season didn’t make things any easier for Brentwood College’s senior boys basketball team in the championship final at the AA provincial tournament in Langley on Saturday.
Brentwood still had to mount a late comeback to earn a 54-44 win over Island rivals the St. Michael’s University School Blue Jags in order to win their first-ever provincial title.
“It felt great, of course,” Brentwood head coach Blake Gage said. “I think maybe what made it particularly sweet was that we had a real battle in the last game. We were down much of the game, and we found a way to battle back.”
Brentwood had crushed SMUS 76-37 in the semifinal of the Island tournament in Brentwood’s own gym late last month. That game was the exception in a series of close clashes over the years.
“We have a long history with SMUS,” Gage commented. “We’ve been battling with them for eight or nine years. We’ve had some good wars. The last two or three years have been tough. They’ve been beating on us every year. It’s a healthy, respectful and competitive rivalry.”
Gage was dreading the idea of facing the Blue Jags for the provincial banner.
“I didn’t want to see them in the final,” he said. “I knew they’d be super well-prepared for us. They have some really strong guys who have been there before. We knew they’d be dialed up; we knew it would be a battle.”
Brentwood was down 11 at halftime, and trailed by as many as 13 points in the third quarter. Will Nemeth hit a three at the end of the third to cut the lead to two, and Brentwood’s Nathan Pasloske went on a run of eight points in a row before the team’s vaunted defence took control.
Brendan Sullivan, who hit back-to-back three-pointers to grow his team’s lead from one point to seven, was named Player of the Game for the championship final and also picked as a first-team tournament all-star.
“[Player of the Game] could have been given to Nathan Pasloske as well,” Gage said. “Brendan played great. He had a terrific tournament. He really stepped up in the big games.”
Brentwood’s defence got some well-deserved recognition as Bruno Chan was named tournament MVP, in large part due to his play at his own end of the court, and Aaron Shulga was named Most Outstanding Defensive Player.
“He did everything for us,” Gage said. “He had a few timely buckets, but his defending was huge. His biggest contributions came at the defensive end of the floor.”
Gage was also pleased to see Shulga honoured.
“It’s a real statement for him to be named as Most Outstanding Defensive Player on a team that basically made a name for itself on defence,” the coach said. “Aaron distributed the ball, made some great shots — he was fiery, gutsy and positive. He was a great captain for us from start to finish, and all year, for that matter.”
Brentwood opened the tournament with an easy 97-38 over Creston’s Prince Charles Secondary. They defeated Richmond’s H.J. Cambie 90-47 in the second round, and beat G.W. Graham in the semifinal.
Scores in some games were deceiving, Gage cautioned, as Brentwood’s depth allows the team to keep playing at a high level late in the game, even after the starters have checked out.
“That sometimes makes it look worse than it is,” he said. “We’re a bit of a second-half team. Teams can stay with us in the first half, but we pull away in the second half.”
Unusual for a provincial champion, Brentwood is only losing three players to graduation, although all of them were huge parts of this year’s squad: Shulga, Cole Hickey and Ender McDuff.
“While all three of them are good basketball players, It’s the leadership side that we’ll miss the most,” Gage said. “On the court, off the court, they show up. They just care. When you have Grade 12s that do that, everything is going to go smoothly.”
Most of the rest of the team will be back, including the majority of the team that won the 2016 provincial junior title. That gives Brentwood a rare chance to repeat, but Gage isn’t close to thinking about that yet.
“We never really focused on the championship as our end goal,” he said. “It would be foolish to think about that for next year. What it comes down to is guys not being satisfied with their own game and putting in the work over the summer.”