The Vernon Panthers are going to the final of the provincial AA girls basketball championship. Finally.
The Panthers edged the North Vancouver-St. Thomas Aquinas Fighting Saints 54-53 in a thrilling semifinal at the Tournament Capital Centre on Friday. Vernon will meet the Surrey-Holy Cross Crusaders in the championship final today, 2 p.m., at the TCC.
Vernon has been one of the most consistent teams at the past eight provincial AA tournaments, finishing in the top eight each time. The Panthers have three fourth-place finishes - including in each of the past two seasons - and a third during that span, but had never advanced to the final.
Until Friday, that is.
"This is huge," said Panthers head coach Bobby Mitchell. "This group worked hard, but we've put a lot of time in, and the girls earned this. This is our third or fourth Final Four, and I don't even know what to say. It feels good."
At halftime, the Panthers looked like they were going to cruise into the final, but STA had other plans. The Fighting Saints fought back and, after a Taylor Prescott three-pointer to end the third quarter, led 41-39 heading into the final 10 minutes.
Things went back and forth from there. Vernon took a one-point lead with 29 seconds left, but STA got it back with nine seconds on the clock.
Vernon's first shot attempt missed, but Karley Fugel got the rebound and drew a foul on STA's Vanessa Botteselle with 3.2 seconds remaining.
Fugel, after a timeout, stepped up and knocked down both free throws, giving the Panthers the lead. STA's last-second attempt came up short, sending the Panthers to their first tournament final.
"She held it together and she was huge for us all game," Mitchell said. "Teams have been keying on her and taking her out of the offence and the other girls have stepped up.
"It was her time; she stepped up."
Fugel and Quinsy Leier each had 15 points for the Panthers, and Jenna Marrion added nine. Botteselle had 23 points to lead the Fighting Saints, who will play for third against the Nanaimo-Wellington Wildcats today at noon.
The final will feature the tournament's top two seeds - even though Holy Cross is the big-time favourite, Vernon feels good.
"We played them in February and they beat us by 30," Mitchell said. "We feel like we're a different team. We're going to have to compete and they're going to have to compete."
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The Sa-Hali Sabres' offence struggled again Friday, as they lost 51-27 to the Prince George-Duchess Park Condors in a consolation game.
The Sabres will play the Victoria-St. Michael's Jaguars for seventh place today, noon, at Sa-Hali secondary.
Duchess Park was led by Carly Shaw-McLaren's 18 points, and Celine Foucher also scored 13 points. Shenise Sigsworth had eight points to lead the Sabres, and Jaida Wallat had seven points, nine rebounds and four assists.