In the end the Claremont Spartans and their size proved too much for the Belmont Bulldogs.
Nonetheless, the host team at the Vancouver Island junior boys basketball championships did what they set out to do: earn a berth into this week’s provincial championships in Langley.
The Spartans fought off a determined Bulldogs attack in the second half, used their added length to win more loose balls and rebounds and sank some key fourth-quarter baskets to win Saturday’s Island final 49-41 at Belmont.
The top four finishers – Lambrick Park beat Nanaimo’s Dover Bay 55-39 in the third-fourth game – advanced to the provincials, which run Feb. 25 to 28 at the Langley Events Centre.
Spartans head coach Brandon Dunlop gave kudos to a gritty opponent after his team was presented with the champion’s trophy.
“Belmont’s one of those teams that’s been in every game this year,” he said. “We knew it was going to be tough at Belmont in this environment and they kind of had a lot of energy based on what their fans were giving them. I’m super proud of my guys, they just kind of stuck with it. It wasn’t super pretty all the time, but we stuck with it.”
Claremont was coming off a huge 50-41 win over city league champion Lambrick Park in Friday’s semifinals.
In the championship game, Claremont’s biggest lead was 10 in the third quarter, 37-27, but several times when it seemed the Spartans were ready to pull away, the Bulldogs dug deep and kept attacking.
Belmont coach Curt Spaven, whose team was coming off a 60-43 romp over Oak Bay in the semifinals, admitted Claremont’s extra height was a factor in the final, but he noted that the Bulldogs were able to keep the Spartans on their toes with an up-tempo style and a frequent defensive press.
“I thought it was a very well-played game on both sides. I think it came down to the fact they just made a few more shots than us,” he said. “Their length is troubling for everyone who plays them; nobody else on the Island has that. that’s a team built like what you see in the Fraser Valley and when you aren’t able to replicate it in practice, it’s hard.”
Claremont, the second-place finisher in city league play to Belmont’s third, trailed 12-11 after an even first quarter. The Spartans started fast in the second quarter to take the lead for good and led 22-19 at the break.
Led by the knifing drives to the hoop of guard Danny Song, later named Belmont’s player of the game, the Bulldogs kept chipping away and pulled within two at 26-24 early in the third quarter. The teams traded baskets and free throws to keep it close, but each ran into foul trouble and put the other into a bonus situation with less than two minutes to play in the third.
Claremont appeared primed to run away with the game when they followed a pair of Belmont free throw misses with a three-pointer from tournament all-star Ethan Boag and a fast break put-back by Jesse Langley to make it 37-27 Spartans.
Showing their determination, Belmont responded with another drive and layup from Song with eight seconds left. Teammate Markus Modrovic stole the inbounds pass and laid in another two points at the buzzer to cut the lead to 37-31.
Claremont built a nine-point lead in the final quarter, 44-35, but again Belmont fired back, getting a layup from Daunte Nelson and a three-point bomb from Song that cut the lead to four with 2:15 to play.
With the Spartans already in bonus foul situation, they used the remaining time to sink a handful of free throws to secure the win.
Modrovic, named to the tournament all-star team, led Belmont with 13 points while Song chipped in with 11.
Claremont’s Kyle Pepper, who led the Spartans with 13 points in the final, was named tournament most valuable player, while other all-stars included Lambrick’s Nevin Johal and Dover Bay’s Owen Bray.