COLLINGWOOD School will tear down their gym in a few weeks, so it was fitting that their senior boys basketball team brought the house down with one final championship performance.
On Friday the Cavaliers topped the Elphinstone Cougars 68-61 in a tense final to win the Howe Sound AA championship.
"It's a great farewell," head coach Virgil Hill said as his Cavaliers celebrated the win inside the building that will be replaced by a new one now under construction. The walls of the old barn were covered with farewell messages scrawled by the school's students.
"It certainly opens up a new chapter in the history of the school," said Hill.
The tournament final pitted a deep, experienced Collingwood team against a brash, young Elphinstone squad led by a pair of provincial team players. Collingwood Grade 12 guard John Choi got the Cavaliers off to a strong start, scoring 13 points in the opening quarter to push the Cavs to a 20-13 lead. Elphinstone closed the gap - they trailed by just five at halftime - and shot into the lead after ripping off a 9-0 run to start the third quarter.
With their championship slipping away, the veteran Cavaliers actually called on the youngest player on the court, Grade 10 guard Aman Mehat, who ended the third quarter with a strong drive and long three-pointer to key a championship clinching 184 run that put the Cavaliers in the lead for good. Elphinstone made it close, dropping some late threes to pull within two points with 18 seconds left, but Collingwood closed it out at the free throw line to claim the title.
"I feel good for the kids. They've worked so hard," said Hill. "Championships are hard to come by. . . . I thought we showed a lot of gumption in terms of our poise and ability to withstand a run and then make some crucial free throws down the stretch."
Mehat scored 12 points in the championship final and was named player of the game as well as a tournament all-star. Hill wasn't surprised that the only Grade 10 player in the game took over down the stretch.
"I've coached his two older brothers and they're a great basketball family," he said. He's the youngest of three, he's going to be the best one. . . . He's really our best player, he's going to be a really good player in a couple of years' time."
Choi finished the final with 18 points.
"He's worked so hard," said Hill. "When these guys were in Grade 8 he barely played, was a bit of a chubby guy on the bench. He's transformed his body, worked so hard in the offseason to become the player he is. He's really worthy of that MVP tonight."
Collingwood's Jack Huebner was also named a tournament all-star, helping to provide the depth that eventually overpowered the Cougars.
"We're seven deep - we can go seven guys who are interchangeable," said Hill. "My starting point guard (Aiden Jarrar) is out with mono, he's been out for two weeks. He didn't even play in this whole thing."
The Cougars were led by the inside/outside duo of forward Nate Haglund and point guard T.J. Turenne, both named tournament all-stars. Turenne scored 15 in the final while Haglund added 12.
"Those two guys are good players - those guys are provincial team guys and you can see why," said Hill. "They have a huge impact on the game at both ends and it was just difficult for us to deal with them."
Turenne and Haglund were joined on the all-tournament team by guard Nolan Lewarne who dropped 19 points in the final.
"Elphinstone was a worthy opponent and, as the score would indicate, they gave us everything we could handle," said Hill. "They were one of the teams in the league I didn't look forward to playing. They were certainly our equal."
All but one of the Cougars, including their entire starting lineup, are in Grade 11, making them the odds-on favourite to win next year's title.
"They're going to win the league next year, hands down," said Hill with a laugh, adding that this group of Cougars was unbeatable in the younger age groups but it took them a little time to adjust to the senior level. The team finished sixth in the league with a 4-4 record but stormed through the playoffs and pushed the first-place Cavaliers to the brink.
"They were projected to be the best team in the league but what they didn't understand was that senior basketball is different - the coaches are better, the players are better, the seniors all play with what I call 'senior fever,'" said Hill. "They've never really lost, this is the first time they've lost a league. They didn't quite understand the level of intensity needed game in, game out. I think they've kind of found it. . . . Once they figured out the level of intensity needed for 40 minutes every game out, they were going to be that team that was going to get through to the final."
The Cavaliers, meanwhile, now set their sights on the provincial AA championships set for March 6-9 in Kamloops. Hill is hoping that his team will be able to rev up their game for the big show.
"We actually played our best basketball maybe about a month ago," he said. "Hopefully we can get a little healthier and recharge mentally, physically. I think we peaked a little bit ago."
Whatever happens from here on, however, these Cavaliers will always be known as the team that tore the roof off of the old Collingwood gym.