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The current — and future — strength of junior girls basketball in the Central Okanagan came to the fore at the Sweet 16 tournament on the weekend.
Kelowna teams swept all three medals at the eighth annual event hosted by Immaculata High School and Okanagan Mission Secondary, with the Kelowna Owls living up to expectations by earning gold with a 65-45 win over the Grade 9 OKM Huskies in the championship game.
The KLO Cougars, also made up entirely of Grade 9 players, defeated the W.L. Seaton Sonics of Vernon in the bronze-medal game.
Ranked No. 2 in the province and unbeaten in 23 games this season, the Kelowna Secondary School Owls were heavily favoured to prevail as the top team going into the 16-team affair. They didn’t disappoint.
Following three lopsided wins — over South Kamloops Titans, Vernon Panthers and W.L. Seaton — in which they outscored their opposition 283-115, the Owls responded to a serious challenge by OKM in the early going to pull away in the final quarter for their fifth tournament title of the season.
Shiah Holmes, the Sweet 16 most valuable player, scored 18 points and grabbed 14 rebounds to lead KSS, who also received all-star-team performances from Tessa Bentley and Chelsey Macaulay.
The Owls trailed the Huskies 15-10 at the quarter and were held to a 30-30 tie by the half before taking a 46-40 lead going into the decisive final eight minutes.
KSS coach Robin Espenberg said his team did well to adapt its strategy in dealing with Huskies’ determined play in the opening half.
“OKM had made some adjustments since we last played,” noted Espenberg, whose team had defeated the Huskies three times previously. “After some adjustments of our own and shedding the championship -game nerves, we gained momentum to pull into a tie. Our late-game defensive effort and nine points by Tessa (Bentley) in the fourth quarter gave us a big lift.”
The Owls had earned a berth in the final by downing Seaton 76-46 in semifinal final play, led by Abbey McCann’s 19 points and a 12-point effort by Madyson Greggor. Holmes and Paris Kirk both contributed 10 points.
By winning a provincial-qualifying tournament in Kamloops a week earlier, the Owls have earned an automatic berth at the 24-team B.C. provincial junior championship tournament in Langley Feb. 27-March 2.
The Owls will have an opportunity to climb a rung in the provincial rankings this weekend when they take part in a tournament in Abbotsford. They’ll play No. 1 Terry Fox Ravens of Port Coquitlam in their second game.
“We haven’t played them (Ravens), but we know they’re well coached and have been playing together for a number of years, so we’re going to have to be really tough defensively and not make too many mistakes to stay with them,” said Espenberg.
“It'll be a good learning experience and it will let us know exactly what we need to improve on over the next month leading up to provincials.”
Meanwhile, Huskies’ coach, Lisa Nevoral, was pleased with her young team’s performance in the Sweet 16 final after its win (54-47) over KLO in semifinal play — their first victory over the Cougars in three tries this season.
“We had a really good first three-quarters of a game (against KSS), but at this point in development, they are just a little more experienced . . . being a year older and bigger.”
Nevoral and the Huskies got a 13-point performance from Elana Corrado, nine of which came from outside the three-point arc. Tatum Wade, a tournament all-star along with teammate Kanani Coon, added seven points despite fouling out in the fourth quarter.
In semifinal play, OKM earned its third straight win on the weekend by edging KLO. Wade and Coon both scored 15 points and added four steals and 10 rebounds respectively while Stella LaGrange chipped in with 12 rebounds.
It was the second straight second-place finish for the provincially No. 13-ranked Huskies, who were also runners-up to KSS at the provincial qualifying tournament in Kamloops.
Although with a roster of Grade 9s and one Grade 8, OKM will compete for the Central Okanagan junior title at a city championship next week, hoping to be one of two teams advancing to the Valley championship tournament in Summerland Feb. 15/16. The top three teams at the Valley tournament will move on to the provincial championship in Langley.
The KLO Cougars will be vying for a provincial berth through the same route and will meet OKM in the Central Okanagan semifinal for the right to advance to the Valley showdown.
Utilizing “an aggressive press, defensive adaptability, a quick transition, as well as intelligent reads and reaction outside offensive sets”, the Cougars jumped out to an early lead in their bronze-medal matchup against Seaton. It was 21-14 at the quarter, 31-24 by the half and 48-35 going into the final quarter of the 57-43 victory.
Phoebe Molgat, a tournament all-star with teammate Denae Skelton, led the charge offensively with 14 points while Mekkila Brown added 10 points and 10 boards to go along with 10 points by Skelton and eight by player-of-the-game, Dani Mellon.
Earlier on the weekend, the Cougars, ranked No. 11 among junior teams in the province, defeated Duchess Park of Prince George 64-28 and the Kalamalka Lakers of Vernon 59-43 before falling to OKM for the first time this season.
KLO coach Les Skelton said the Cougars’ performance confirmed his assessment of the team going into weekend play.
“Their level of compete and desire to win is deeper than any team I have coached in the past,” he said. “They will hit the floor for every loose ball if necessary, and win most 50/50 balls. Their knees have bruises and floor burns like I have never seen before. It doesn't matter if they all know we are going to lose a game, they refuse to give up and they battle until the clock stops ticking.”