THE scorecard now reads 2-0 for the Handsworth Royals senior girls team in their heavyweight fight against the Argyle Pipers but both teams know there are still several rounds to come.
Led by a scorching 42 points from Grade 12 guard Elisa Homer, including four game-winning free throws with less than 30 seconds left in the game, the Royals held off a fierce Argyle comeback Thursday night to win their first league meeting of the season 70-68. The two teams also met in December in the final of the prestigious Telus Basketball Classic with the Royals claiming that title with a seven-point win. Both teams came into Thursday's game ranked in the top-5 in the province.
"(They give us) all we can handle," said Handsworth head coach Scott Palmer. "These two teams are so equal in so many ways."
Homer was on fire all night, dropping three pointers with ease while also slashing into the lane to score acrobatic layups or earn trips to the foul line. The Royals raced out early and built up an 18-4 lead by the end of the first quarter. Argyle didn't quit, however, employing a tough full-court press defence to outscore the Royals 29-14 in the third quarter and take a 49-41 lead into the final frame.
With less than two minutes left Argyle took a 67-60 lead and looked like they had it in the bag before Handsworth guard Abby Dixon leapt into action, scoring three points the hard way by getting fouled on a driving layup before stealing the ball off of the following inbounds play to score another layup, giving her five points in five seconds and cutting the lead to two.
That set up the deciding play in which Argyle was called for a hand-checking foul, sending Homer to the free throw line. Argyle coach Anthony Fortunaso protested and was whistled for a technical, tacking on two more free throws and giving the Royals the ball back. Homer stepped up and sank all four. The Pipers still had a shot to win but a half-court heave at the buzzer from guard Chelsea Dekleer sailed wide.
Fortunaso - who saw his two best players, guard Claire Elliott and post Robyn Aulin-Haynes, both foul out of the game - was disappointed with the way it ended.
"It's tough when refs decide the game, that's all I can say," he said. "They're such a good free throw shooting team. . . . Elisa is just clutch. You put her on the line and she's going to hit those."
The Argyle coach marveled at Homer's 42point performance.
"She's so tough to guard," he said. "You get up on her and she goes by you. She just finishes so many different ways, she's so creative around the rim. You really can't let her into the paint or it's pretty much an automatic finish or she's getting to the free throw line."
Fortunaso was also impressed with the spirit his own team showed in coming back from their early deficit.
"At halftime I just told them that we're playing without confidence right now," he said. "We just have to come out in the second half with the confidence that we can beat them and we can hang with them and that's what we did. We came out, we finished layups, we pushed the ball, got steals. That's just all about confidence and believing that we can beat people."
Homer, bound for SFU next season, combined with Dixon to score 61 of the team's 70 points while the Pipers had a more balanced attack, getting 19 from Aulin-Haynes, 16 from Elliott, 13 from Dekleer and 12 from Sophie Swant.
Both teams know this isn't the end. They'll play up to four times more with one league game remaining followed potentially by the North Shore final, the Lower Mainland final and then the provincial championships. Both coaches hinted at a scenario that could see the North Van rivals settling the score once and for all on the sport's biggest stage in a month's time.
"I think these two teams, if they hit their strides at the right time, they could both be in the provincial final," said Fortunaso. "That's how good they are."
The Royals and Pipers will renew acquaintances again Feb. 5 with Handsworth hosting a 7: 30 p.m. regular season game.