UBC'S War Memorial Gymnasium was the centre of the B.C. basketball universe on Saturday and for a couple of hours that universe looked a lot like North Vancouver.
The Handsworth and Argyle senior girls teams took their crosstown rivalry to the Point Grey campus to battle in the first ever all-North Shore final at the prestigious Telus Basketball Classic. Handsworth came in as one of the tournament favourites and justified that buzz with a 53-46 win over the Pipers in the final. It was Argyle, however, that really shook up the tournament one day earlier, defeating the de-facto No. 1-ranked Brookswood Bobcats 86-77 in the semis.
Handsworth watched the Argyle upset unfold after dispatching Riverside 53-52 in their own semifinal matchup.
"We were sitting in the gym watching and Brookswood got out to an awesome start, I think they were up by 12 or 14 real quick in the first period," recalled Handsworth head coach Scott Palmer. "And we thought, well, I guess it'll be Brookswood. But good old Argyle kept chippin' away and chippin' away and before you knew it it's the frickin' end of the game and they win by (nine)."
That shocker set up Saturday's showdown on the big stage of UBC's gym. It's literally a big stage - the court at War Memorial is larger than the normal high school gyms the players use.
"It's about 10 or 12 feet longer and six feet wider," said Palmer. "It doesn't sound like much until you start running back and forth." It's also figuratively a big stage with seemingly every big name in B.C. basketball in attendance.
"It's a really neat experience for them - something they're probably going to experience only once in their lifetime," said Argyle coach Anthony Fortunaso, adding that the drama was heightened by the close ties shared between the two teams. "It's so emotional because the girls have friends on both teams and they play in the offseason together and all that kind of stuff. It's almost like strategy is out the window because they know each other so well and this is an emotional game."
That emotion got to Argyle early as they missed shot after shot in an ice-cold start. But they battled back and the game remained close throughout.
"There must have been 15 or 20 lead changes," said Palmer. "It was that close - back and forth, back and forth."
In the end it was the Grade 12 pairing of point guard Abby Dixon and shooting guard Elisa Homer who pushed the Royals to victory. The always-attacking Homer scored a game-high 25 points with Dixon then coming in to seal the deal, knocking down back-to-back three-pointers in the dying minutes to put Handsworth ahead for good.
Palmer said his two outstanding guards play different styles but they work well together.
"Abby Dixon is definitely the cool customer, she doesn't show a lot of emotion - although she sure did at the end of the game on Saturday," he said with a laugh. "And Homer is just the opposite, she's dynamic, you know when she's on the floor."
They're certainly a matchup nightmare for opposing coaches, said Fortunaso.
"Abby and Elisa are so good. Elisa is one of the best scorers in the province, you just have to make her earn her shots," he said. "She and Abby work so well together. Abby barely ever turns over the ball and she had (Argyle point guard) Claire Elliott guarding her the entire game, who is probably one of the best defenders in the province on the perimeter. We took Claire off her for a few minutes and Abby killed us late in the game. It's really hard to stop them."
Handsworth may have emerged with the title in this tournament but Argyle proved that they can hang with any team in the province, including the rival Royals. The Pipers are led by a trio of stars in Elliott and fellow Grade 12 guard Chelsea Dekleer along with Grade 11 forward Robyn Aulin-Haynes.
"They're just fantastic players and they've got a nice supporting cast - on any given night we could easily lose to them," said Palmer. "You can't leave Chelsea alone, she can hit the three just deadly. Claire Elliott is just a stud - she can do it all. Really athletic. And then Robyn has got just soft, soft hands on the inside. When she gets that ball in there she's tough to stop."
Elliott led the Pipers with 13 in the final. "We run everything through her, she's phenomenal to have and she works so hard," said Fortunaso. "She's pretty much everything a coach could ask for. She's a great leader, she sacrifices for the team. She played two games back-to-back, didn't come off for one second and guarded three of the best perimeter players in the province in Sydney Williams from Brookswood and then the two from Handsworth. She managed to do that and still score 15-plus points in each game."
Dekleer paced the Pipers with 33 points in their upset of Brookswood.
"She walks in the gym and she's in range," said Fortunaso. "She hit some huge shots against Brookswood that were just deep - I mean where people wouldn't even think about guarding her."
Aulin-Haynes is great inside and out, said Fortunaso.
"She just rebounds the hell out of the ball on both ends and she's such a force inside, there aren't many teams that can stop her," he said. "Robyn is also a really good shooter so she has that inside-outside game that makes her really difficult to stop. . . . For my money she's right there with the best post players in the province."
With star power and excellent early-season results on both sides of the rivalry, Handsworth and Argyle are gearing up for a long season of cross-town clashes.
"These are two, I think, top-5 teams in the province right now," said Palmer. "This could be a very long season. We know we're going to see them twice in the league. We'll probably see them in another tournament, see them in the North Shore final. We've got four, maybe five more games against these guys."
The Telus Classic was a great way to get it all started, added Fortunaso.
"I think seeing two of the biggest schools on the North Shore going at it in one of the biggest tournaments of the whole senior basketball season was just huge," he said. "I think we put on a good show."