LUKA Petkovic of the Handsworth senior boys basketball team has a way of getting people riled up, including opponents, spectators and even sometimes his own coach.
Maybe it's his occasional high stepping while leading the fast break, his fiery shouts to the crowd after big plays or his shot selection that includes quick-trigger threes from way, way behind the line.
Petkovic himself traces it back to a fashion choice he made as a Grade 10 student when he debuted at the senior level.
"Since I was in Grade 10 I had fans heckle me," he said. "I wore bright yellow shoes in Grade 10 and they called me Mr. Sunshine. They sang 'I'm Walking on Sunshine' since Grade 10. When the opposing fans come against me I like to silence the crowd. Basketball is a sport where you can silence 100 people with one shot."
In last week's Howe Sound Championship tournament Petkovic took a lot more than one shot and he did a lot of silencing too, putting in a performance for the ages as Handsworth topped the host Sentinel Spartans in two straight games to win the title. Needing two straight wins over Sentinel in the double-knockout style tournament, the Royals won on Wednesday night thanks to 25 points and four assists from point guard Adam Karmali and 23 points, eight rebounds and six assists from Petkovic, setting up a winner-take-all showdown Thursday. And the one who took it all was Petkovic, dropping 27 points, including five three pointers, in just the first half to stake the Royals to a commanding 45-35 lead at the break. Sentinel hung around in the second half but Petkovic never stopped attacking, drawing fouls on fierce forays to the basket and racking up three more three-pointers to end the night with 44 points, nine rebounds and six assists. His 44 was the second highest total ever in a Howe Sound final after Tyler Kepkay's 45 in the 2005 championship game for Handsworth.
"This was his game," Handsworth head coach Blair Shier said after watching Petkovic and his teammates cut down the mesh following their 83-67 win. "We've got such depth on the perimeter that it's hard to focus on any one guy. They step off Luka and Adam hits shots. Luka was on tonight. And he's really tough to stop when he's on. He's as competitive a kid as you have in the game of basketball in B.C. He'll go through a brick wall."
That determination, it seems, is the one factor that sticks out about Petkovic above all the fancy dribbles and audacious threes. His swagger might rub some the wrong way but it was his sweat that most impressed Sentinel head coach Klaus Heck.
"He plays hard - I like that. I like kids who play hard," the longtime coach said. "He's a shooter, he's an offensive player, he has great determination and he plays hard. I think he'll play hard no matter what the game is. He just didn't miss, especially in the first half. We've seen him miss sometimes before - he'd be hot and then he'd miss - but he didn't have many cold streaks today."
The win for Handsworth finally pushed them ahead of Sentinel in what has been a season-long battle for top spot on the North Shore. The teams split their two regular season games and finished in a tie for first but Sentinel was awarded top spot and hosting duties for the playoffs because they won a tie-breaking formula. The two teams then split a pair of playoff games, setting up Thursday's finale. Throughout the season series the matchup pitted Handsworth's talented and speedy guards against Sentinel's tall and solid post players.
"In the first games that we played against them they just beat us up inside, we could not stop them," said Shier. "We changed some things up, made some defensive adjustments and I think we were able to get things figured out from that perspective."
In the final game Sentinel was led by talented six-four shooting guard Chase Ruttenberg who scored 25 and was the only Spartan in double figures. Heck said that his Spartans performed up to expectations in the playoffs but couldn't keep up with the Royals, particularly Petkovic and Karmali, in the final two games.
"We just had a lot of trouble controlling them and then when we did make them miss, a fellow like Charlie Horn came in and got a whole bunch of rebounds," said Heck. "Kurt Bell got some timely baskets when we thought we had them stopped. That hurt. They had a lot of guys that contributed and we just couldn't put it together as well as they put it together."
In the end, though, it was "Mr. Sunshine" who shone the brightest. Petkovic said he pumped himself up for the final by repeatedly watching an NBA game from the previous night in which Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors scored 54 points against the New York Knicks. When his shot started dropping early in Thursday's final, Petkovic knew he was in the zone.
"I always tell my friends I'm like a video game - I hit one, just keep giving me the ball again. I get in a zone where I hit one, two - one dribble over half, I'll shoot from anywhere. I don't know - you're in that mojo, you're in that zone, the basket is an ocean at that point."
What might look and sound like cocky swagger is actually confidence born from a lot of hard work, said Petkovic.
"That just comes from thousands - honestly thousands - of hours of training," he said. "I know that I've put in more work than everyone. Everyone says, 'Oh, that's such a deep three,' but they don't see the work. I go in and I make 500 of those deep threes a week or something like that. It's just a confidence thing. I know I've put the time in, I have the ability to make those types of shots or certain moves. The more you put in the work, the more confident you get."
Those long bombs can produce groans even from his own coach, but Shier said he and Petkovic have a pretty good understanding of each other.
"I've coached him all five years at Handsworth so we've gone through a lot together. . . . We've learned to respect each other - he knows when I'm ticked at him," he said with a laugh. "He's played hard all his life, he's competed hard. He's worked for everything he's got and he's got confidence and competitiveness that are second to none."
Petkovic earned tournament MVP honours
while Handsworth's Karmali and Horn, Sentinel's Ruttenberg and Aiden Milburn and Sutherland's Mitchell Merilees were named tournament all-stars.
The Royals will now set their sights on the provincial tournament scheduled for March 12-16 at the Langley Events Centre. The Royals, who did not crack the top-10 in the latest provincial AAA rankings, will take on fifth-ranked W.J. Mouat from Abbotsford in their opening game. The Royals won't be favourites at the tournament but, like their high scoring leader, they won't be lacking in confidence when they hit the floor in Langley.
"Anything can happen in those games," said Shier. "What I like about it is we're going there with a bunch of Grade 12s that have a lot of experience and a lot of confidence. We're going to give it a shot and see what we can do."