Things did not look good for the Walnut Grove Gators.
Trailing for much of the second half against the W.J. Mouat Hawks on Saturday night at the Langley Events Centre, the Gators found themselves down 88-81 with just a few minutes to play in the bronze medal game at the B.C. 4A senior boys basketball championships.
But it was a pair of graduating seniors who made their last high school game count.
Santhosh Nandakumar hit one three-pointer to make it 88-84 and after the Hawks scored to go back up by six, he spotted up for another three-point attempt.
This time, his shot was blocked — which brought a huge roar from the Mouat supporters — but the ball went straight up in the air and landed right back in his hands. With his defender well out of position now — and with no hesitation — Nandakumar calmly drained his second attempt from beyond the arc to pull his team within three points.
The Gators would tie the score at 90 with some free throws and after the Hawks went ahead 92-90, another Grade 12 player, Daniel Stead, hit his second three-pointer of the quarter to put Walnut Grove ahead for good, 93-92 with just over a minute to play.
The teams traded free throws to close the game with Walnut Grove prevailing 96-94.
“It was God’s grace that the ball fell back in my hands,” said Nandakumar.
The three-pointer gave the shooting guard 31 points for the game and for the tournament, he finished with an average of 24.25 points per game. Included in that was 21 made three-pointers.
For his efforts, he earned a provincial second team all-star award.
“We worked really hard as a team and it feels great to finish with a medal with these guys,” he said.
“They gave me confidence (all tournament), told me to keep shooting.”
Walnut Grove was the fifth seed at provincials and beat West Vancouver 85-47 in their opener. In round two, they knocked off No. 4 Oak Bay 81-60.
And that set up a semifinal showdown against the No. 1 Kelowna Owls.
Walnut Grove was down 45-31 at the half before a monster third-quarter saw them take the lead 59-55 after three quarters. But the Owls — who did not lose to any Canadian competition all season — would recover to win 86-71 and go on to capture the provincial title with an 86-72 win over No. 2 Tamanawis.
Kelowna’s fourth-quarter deficit against the Gators was the only time the entire tournament they were down after the first quarter.
“It stings (but) these are very resilient kids,” said Walnut Grove coach George Bergen about the disappointment of losing in the semifinals.
“It was hard to get up for (the bronze medal) game but they also wanted a ‘W’”.
The coach did say he wanted to stress to his players the importance of free throw shooting.
They were 20-for-30 from the charity stripe against the Hawks, including just 10-for-16 in the fourth quarter.
And it was even worse against Kelowna as their misses cost them. The Gators were 8-for-18, including six misses in the fourth quarter.
“It was hard, but as soon as we started playing, the juices started flowing,” said Josh Ajayi, who also played his final high school game.
Jake Cowley, who was named a first team all-star, was hampered by four fouls against Mouat, and finished with nine points. He entered the game averaging 19 points and 14 rebounds.
Ty Rowell scored 21 in the game and both those players will be back for their Grade 12 year.
Stead finished with 15 points, nine of which came in the fourth quarter, while Wei Chung had 13. It was Stead and Chung’s final high school game.
Gary Ahuja Langley Times
Walnut Grove’s Ty Rowell attempts an off-balance shot during the bronze medal game against the Mouat Hawks. The Gators won 96-94.