HANDSWORTH alums Diana Lee and Kristjana Young took their one-two punch to their sport's highest level last month, helping the under-19 women's national team achieve one of the best results in the history of Canada Basketball.
Team Canada compiled a record of 8-1 at the FIBA U19 World Championships for Women held July 2131 in Chile, knocking off powerhouses like China, Russia and even basketball superpower the United States.
The team's motto throughout the tournament was "not too high, not to low," said Lee, and that mantra was put to the ultimate test as Canada faced amazing peaks and one giant crater.
Canada started with a bang - they crushed China 76-49 in their opening game - and kept on rolling with decisive wins over Egypt, Italy, Russia and Japan.
"Every team that we played we knew it was going to be a hard game," Young told the North Shore News after the team arrived back in Canada. "We were kind of underdogs a lot so we just went in and played loose, we played so together. We beat some big teams. After we beat China and then Russia we kind of realized that we weren't just the underdogs, we could go into the medal rounds."
Then came a second-round meeting with the United States. It wasn't a must-win for either team but both came in undefeated.
"I was nervous," said Young. "But then again I felt like we were the underdog again and we didn't really have anything to lose. I just kind of wanted to go out and play my hardest."
The whole team played hard, jumping out to an early lead and then squashing all U.S. comeback attempts to score a comfortable 64-52 win.
"We were up the whole game and I was like, OK, they're going to push back at some point so you've just got to keep focused and keep playing D," said Young. "Nobody really freaked out at the end because I think we were all in shock. . . . It was the craziest win of my life."
It's hard to remember a "not too high" mantra after a win like that, but the team tried to stay levelheaded, said Lee.
"We kind of took about half an hour to bask in the fact that we'd beaten such a power but we knew that we had another game the day after so we just had to celebrate a little bit but then get back to business and focus on the next game."
The next game was a must-win if they hoped to get into the medals and, it turned out, it was the team's only loss of the tournament.
"The one game that we couldn't lose was the one that we lost," said Lee, the sting of their 69-55 defeat at the hands of Spain still sounding in her voice. "You have to step up your game once you get to that quarterfinal. We kind of played at the same level and I think Spain kind of upped how they had been playing before and it just didn't turn out well for us."
That's when the "not too low" motto was put to the test. To their credit, the team rallied to win their final two games against Japan and France to finish the tournament in fifth place.
"That was tough to do - we were still upset that we didn't get to the medal round," said Young. "It just kind of showed what our team was all about. Our team was hard working, we played for each other. We were mentally tough to get through those two (final games). It was tough though."
When it was all over Canada finished with eight wins and one loss, the best ever record for a Canadian team at any world championship tournament and the same mark as the eventual champions: the United Stated. Spain finished second.
Back home in B.C. both Young and Lee were starting to put the team's results in perspective.
"Getting an 8-1 record made history for Canada so we can't really be too upset with how we did, but it just goes to show that you have to show up for every game," said Lee. "We didn't play our best game against Spain. It sucks that we couldn't have beaten them and gotten into the semis. It's kind of all a learning experience and shows that you just have to be ready for any opponent."
"I don't think I realized when we were playing how well we were doing," added Young. "Looking back on it it's crazy that we only lost one game."
Both Young and Lee played important minutes for the team and with other stars like Nirra Fields, Wumi Agunbiade and the Plouffe twins, Michelle and Katherine, making big contributions, Canada succeeded with hard work, good coaching and great chemistry, said Lee.
"There was no drama on our team, all the girls got along great. We're all really good friends now so I think that was a big part of it."
For Young and Lee it was the first time playing together in a meaningful game since they walked off the court as two-time defending provincial AAA champions with the Handsworth Royals last year. For the 2010-11 season Lee was a rookie at NCAA school Boise State while Young took her game to UBC. They've known each other since elementary school and both started for the Royals senior team for four straight years beginning in Grade 9.
"After high school we kind of thought that was going to be the last time we'd play together," said Lee. "At the beginning of tryouts (for Team Canada) some of the girls didn't know that we were from the same place and best friends. They were like, 'How do you guys know each other so well?' and we were like, 'Oh, we're best friends.'"
That old bond they used to share - Handsworth head coach Scott Palmer used to call them the Sedin twins because of their uncanny connection on the court - came right back.
"Di was my point guard for every game in high school so I recognize her passes and her moves," said Young. "To get to have one more chance to play together was really cool. We know each other so well, it's like playing together is so easy."
To do it with Canada's Maple Leaf stitched into their jerseys made it all the more special, said Young.
"It was unbelievable. It was insane. When we got our jerseys it was the coolest thing I've ever experienced in basketball. It was crazy. I didn't want to give it back."
For Lee it was a dream come true.
"It's such an honour. It's been a goal of mine ever since I started playing to represent my country and to be able to finally do that and wear that 'Canada' on my chest, it's a unbelievable feeling. I'm just so proud to be able to do that and to represent my country. . . . You can't ask for anything better than to not only be representing your country and playing on the highest stage but experiencing it all with your best friend. What more can you ask for?"