FOR the fourth year in a row, the Garden City Fighting Gophers boys basketball squad came to the Wesmen Classic high school championship and conquered.
On Monday night, the province's reigning AAAA high school champions blasted through a last-minute challenge from the Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Hawks to seal an 88-83 victory in front of a howling crowd at the Duckworth Centre. It's their sixth Wesmen Classic title in the last seven years.
"I don't even have words for it," Gophers forward Jowel Shuffler said, beaming after the win. "It's a big game, we came ready to play, and I'm just glad we came out with a win. We wanted it so much. We've been working every day of the week, three-hour practices, every day grinding, trying to get this win."
In Shuffler, that work showed. The 6-4 senior turned in a stunning 36-point, 25-rebound performance en route to being named tournament MVP. But the final, that was special, a game he called the best of his career. "Big time," he said. "One of my best for sure."
That first score took awhile, though. The Hawks and Fighting Gophers started the game by trading fruitless shots and frustrating bounces; it wasn't until about 90 seconds in that Shuffler finally put the ball through the net. The Hawks responded immediately, and they were off and running. Garden City grabbed the early lead, and the teams went into the second frame 21-18, with Shuffler accounting for 10 of those already.
But the Hawks had their own weapons at the ready, and guard Torrez McKoy loaded up the guns: The MBCI star would strike for 32 points by the time the game was done, and gobbled up 13 rebounds. In the second half, he potted a key basket and added a free throw to close the Gophers' lead to just 63-62.
That wasn't the last time the MBCI squad came within a deuce of taking the lead. With three minutes left to play, McKay's fifth three-point shot of the night did it again. But in the end, the Hawks just couldn't claw their way over the Gophers, who hauled in 55.9 per cent of the game's rebounds. As the fourth quarter ran down, standout MBCI guard Derek McKnight popped in two critical shots in a last-minute push to tie up the game, getting as close as 85-83. Shuffler responded to the last one right away, scoring two with seconds left on the clock, putting the game out of reach as the crowd roared in their seats.
Props are also due to Garden City's shifty 5-6 guard Arel Cansino, who potted 29 points and 11 rebounds while dancing around Hawks defenders and firing slick passes through traffic. While he's in Grade 12, the future looks bright for the Garden City basketball juggernaut: The Fighting Gophers junior varsity squad won their own Wesmen Classic championship on Friday, their third such victory in five years.