Jr. T-Birds climb the rankings with strong showing at provincial tourney

Seeded 16th going into the Provincial Junior Boys Basketball Championships in Langley last week, the Cowichan Secondary Thunderbirds – who made the tournament through an at-large berth – showed they belonged there by winning a pair of games and cracking the top half of the field in the final standings.

According to head coach Lucky Walia, it was all a validation of the plan that the team followed all season.

"Though our results this season have been good, this group genuinely bought into the concept of the process of day to day improvement being more of a priority than any one result in a particular game," he said.

The T-Birds opened the tournament with a 54-51 win over ninth-seeded Killarney, the Vancouver region champions. Noah Charles led the way with 22 points and 18 rebounds, Humza Khan had 15 points and six assists, Connor Hayer had 12 points on four three-pointers and chipped in six rebounds and three assists, and Andy Derocher grabbed 10 rebounds.

"We played a solid game," Walia said. "It was close throughout, but we controlled the pace, and executed well against their 2-3 zone defence."

In their second game, the T-Birds fell 42-32 to West Vancouver, the eventual provincial champions. Cowichan held a 26-17 lead in the third quarter before the Highlanders surged back. Khan had nine points, four rebounds and four assists, Hayer had six points on a pair of treys, Charles had six points and nine boards, and Eston Unrau recorded seven points.

The T-Birds needed overtime to top South Kamloops 49-48 in their third contest. Cowichan led by 14 points, but a late rally capped by a desperation three-pointer sent the teams to overtime. Another three early in overtime gave the Titans the lead, but the T-Birds battled back.

"At that point, we could have packed it in, but the team showed genuine resolve by sticking with it, regrouping, and finding a way to win," Walia said.

Charles poured in 24 points and grabbed six rebounds, while Khan had 16 points and five boards. Hayer nailed another threepointer as part of a five-point, six-rebound outing, and Connor Tanton did an excellent job shadowing the South Kamloops point guard.

Finally, in the battle for ninth place, the T-Birds fell 44-33 to R.A. McMath. Unrau sank a buzzer-beating trey to put Cowichan up by two at halftime, but McMath pulled back in front for good in the third quarter.

Khan, Charles and Unrau all finished with seven points, Charles adding nine rebounds, and Nirmal Hayer had six points and five boards.

"We had contributions from many different players, including a big blocked shot by Nathan Bates in the first quarter to help preserve our lead," Walia said. "Connor Tanton, as he’s usually tasked to do, defended their best guard, while Andy Derocher, along with Zach Waddington challenged their best wing player."

Connor Hayer claimed the Coach’s Award at the tournament in recognition of all his contributions to the team over the season, including 46 three pointers, an average of 1.6 per game.