Champions, at last.
The road to redemption is never easy, but in the case of Riverside Secondary, the destination was just as good as the journey.
The Rapids made history Saturday night (March 4), claiming the Port Coquitlam's school's first-ever B.C. AAAA girls' basketball provincials banner after toppling the top-ranked Walnut Grove Gators, 70-52.
Riverside, who mirrored Terry Fox Secondary's 2022 title run as the third seed, used the disappointment of losing gold to their advantage wholeheartedly and rallied as a team to hoist the trophy at the Langley Events Centre.
"It was all about last year," an emotional Avery Sussex told the Tri-City News after the provincials win, to which she scored a team-high 23 points in the contest.
"We needed a banner. We can't go one whole season without a banner. We can't. So, before the game, we talked, 'We're doing it for Paul. We're doing it for Alexis.' They've done so much for us. And it was a full-on team victory. The energy was everything."
The Grade 11 guard was named the championship player of the game and a first-team all-star after bucketing 105 points in the tournament. The semifinal was her best game with 30 points.
In the final, she showed off her skills in front of a raucous crowd of fans that made the tilt feel like a true away game, including, at one point, back-to-back threes, and a fake spin move that silenced Gator Nation.
Graduating senior Grace Park also came up in clutch moments. She drained a three-pointer late in the second quarter that gave Riverside its largest lead of the night at 14 points.
She said she took inspiration this year from Sussex's strive to be one of the best and wanted to "become better than her" — as motivation, of course.
"I will never be....but every single time I see her in the morning, I'm just like, 'Oh, I need to do that too," Park said, noting she's set to use all of her provincials experience as extra motivation at the college level next year.
"And it just kind of gave me this sense of, like, just keep going until the end. Now, we reached the end with the good results."
On the other side of the ball, the Rapids utilized a defensive strategy that involved double- and, at some times, triple-teaming the eventual AAAA girls' provincials MVP to keep their lead at bay.
Kiera Pemberton notched 39 points for the Gators despite the loss, but was a powerhouse and a player Riverside head coach Paul Langford has much respect for.
"We didn't want them to get on a roll, which I think we did a pretty good job of because Kiera's amazing," he explained.
"And we just did a pretty good job of executing what we wanted in offense. Though we slowed down a couple of times, we had some really precise things that we wanted to do. And we did them well."
The blue banner is Langford's first of his 25-year career at the helm of Riverside Rapids senior girls basketball, which included four trips to the final as well as one junior girls title when his daughter went through the program.
His word for the 2023 squad: special.
"If I talk too long, I'm gonna cry. But I cried when I came 11th, too. So, I cry every year," Langford proudly remarked with noticeable red eyes.
"They got me through the [COVID-19] pandemic, and I don't know what I would have done. They were so awesome."
The last time Riverside reached back-to-back championship games was in 2008 and 2009, but they lost both.
The Rapids were also the fourth school in the last eight years to reach the AAAA provincial final in consecutive seasons Semiahmoo (2019 and 2020), Walnut Grove (2018 and 2019) and Brookswood (2014, 2015, and 2016).
Their undefeated 4-0 record at the 16-team tournament was as follows:
- 70-52 win over #1 Walnut Grove (final)
- 58-46 win over #2 Burnaby Central (semifinal)
- 59-46 win over #6 Kelowna (quarterfinal)
- 85-56 win over #14 R.E. Mountain
Jorja Hart was named tournament first-team all-star, while Natalie Curley was elected to the second-team all-star roster.
Port Moody's Heritage Woods Secondary went 1-3 to finish 12th at provincials, down two spots from their initial 10th-place ranking.
Coquitlam's Dr. Charles Best Secondary lost their first two games, but rallied to win the last two to match their 13th seed.