When the Oak Park Raiders varsity girls basketball team arrived at their final game, they came hunting not just for a win, but for something so much more elusive: perfection.
On Monday night, the Raiders came into the AAAA provincial championship final undefeated: 32 wins, and one last match to go to make 33. Celtics legend Larry Bird's number, coach Murray Brown's favourite player's number, and a figure worthy of posterity. And although it was a nail-biter, although it went right down to the wire, the Raiders made it happen.
So it was, as the Investors Group Athletic Centre at the University of Manitoba exploded with raucous cheers, the Raiders dispatched the Glenlawn Lions to claim the title of provincial champions, their first since 2003-04.
The final score: 71-65. Yeah, it was a thriller.
"When you play Glenlawn, you're never comfortable," Brown said, as the irrepressible grin of an oh-so-unlikely 33rd victory stretched across his face. "Doesn't matter what the score is, they're going to take a shot at us, and they sure did. Our kids had to dig down... we got back to what we wanted to do. We tried to stay true to our philosophy."
See, Oak Park held the lead for most of the game, even as the Lions fought to keep things tight: 13-12 at the end of the first quarter, in the Raiders' favour but only barely, then 36-26 at the half; then the Lions started to claw their way back.
After a wild second half, it all came down to this: With 2:42 left in the final quarter, after trailing for almost all of the game, Glenlawn tied it up when Jasmine Ibrahim hurled a three-pointer. Seconds later, the Raiders bit back, but with 1:39 left in the game, Ibrahim put in another basket and the Lions tied it up again.
So it all came down to this: 59 seconds left, tie game at 65, and Oak Park senior Kerilynn MacLennan took a shot. It went in.
"I knew it was time to release, it was now or never," MacLennan said after the game, in which she battled her way back onto the court after suffering a serious cramp to finish with 28 points and 15 rebounds. "I took a chance, and I'm glad I did. It's indescribable."
MacLennan's shot went in, and the crowd -- already on the edge of boiling -- spilled over with a chaotic chorus of cheers and groans, it was oh-so close. But that would be the final straw: the Lions couldn't recover. A pair of Lions fouls gave Raiders Colleen Moyer and Jerilyn Morton a chance to top up the lead. Then it was done.
Provincial champions, a perfect season, and the medals around their necks to prove it happened.
"Undefeated? That's not heard of," MacLennan said. "The fact that I was a part of it, and the girls on my team, I can call them family. I'm so glad it turned out the way it did. We're in the books."
They're champs, too
OTHER Manitoba provincial varsity girls championship basketball teams:
A: Hamiota Huskies (defeated Treherne Tigers 59-38)
AA: Boissevain Broncos (defeated Steinbach Christian Flames 72-35)
AAA: Linden Christian Wings (defeated RD Parker Trojans 71-47)