Following the Regional Basketball Championships in early September, there was a poll on Instagram asking, ‘Who will win Nationals?’
Wellington College wasn’t among the five schools listed. And yet they beat them all, including every regional champion, to win their first National title in Palmerston North.
“I’m a builder and my assistant [Malachi Collins] is my apprentice,” Wellington College coach Tom Grice laughed. “Someone said to me after the final, ‘Who would have thought a builder, and his apprentice would coach a team to the national title?’
“All year this team was underestimated and written off. That created a chip on our shoulders. This team never reached its full potential until they were truly challenged. They played better when the games were closer - when we were up by 20 points, we’d make so many mistakes. The boys weren’t locked in.”
Still, winning six elimination matches in four days – all by less than 10 points - is an arduous route to glory in anyone's book.
Wellington age group representative Murphy Rogers is Wellington's captain. He was cautiously optimistic about his side’s prospects at the beginning of the week.
"I feel like the top eight was a comfortable goal for us. That was realistic. We knew we could push for the top four, but it was going to be a tough road there,” he said.
Winning the Pohlen Trophy final against St Patrick’s College Silverstream in August was a mighty triumph, but a 99-54 thrashing at the hands of the same opponent less than a fortnight later in the Zone 3 Premiership decider hardly had the entire country trembling at Wellington’s prospects.
Three wins would be required to advance to the playoff stages at Nationals. Day One saw Wellington achieve par with a win against Mount Maunganui College after an educational setback against Hamilton Boys' High School.
"We had a good start, took the foot off the gas, let them get back in the game and never got it back,” Grice said. “We were seven points down when I decided to experiment a bit. That didn’t work but we learned some things which helped. If we played them nine more times, we’d beat them every time.”
That confidence didn't appear misguided against Auckland Grammar School. Running a larger opponent ragged stretched proceedings to extra time, with Wellington narrowly missing the last shot in regulation to win. And then the roof caved in – literally.
"There was a massive leak, so we had to switch courts. Our plan was to run them ragged, but the 10-minute delay was all they needed to get their legs back. A three-point loss to one of the best teams in the country was nothing to get mad at,” Grice said.
“Grammar was a well-rounded team,” Rodgers observed. “Jackson Kiss is only Year 11 but he’s a tough player. During the delay, I tried to make sure the boys stayed warm, loose, and locked in. We took a lot of heart from that game.”
Crucially, New Zealand U17 representative Troy Plumtree returned from Qatar to rejoin Wellington.
Their next assignment would be even more daunting. Rosmini College had won two of the last four Nationals, but Wellington produced arguably their best display of the tournament to subdue the North Harbour powerhouse.
“They never went on a run against us. We kept pushing them on defence and ran our offence efficiently. It was a good game,” Grice said.
The always dogged Feilding High School had to be conquered to ensure qualification for the next round. But early disaster struck Wellington.
“I did my ankle after two minutes and was out for the rest of that game,” Rodgers mourned.
“I was confident the boys could pull through. We had a bit of momentum after Rosmini, but Feilding was tough. Dov [Silberstein] hit a big shot towards the end to get us over the line.”
“We had a handful of guys score double figures in that game despite Mia Morris, another one of our key guys, getting injured,” Grice explained. “That was a theme of the tournament. When someone went down, someone else stood up.
“When we got ahead, we didn’t call a time out. There was no panic. I didn’t want to Feilding to make any adjustments that could hurt us.
“These are high school kids; they’re not running a professional offensive. If you watch a couple of quarters, you’ll quickly see where teams fall to comfort. You already know who the bigger players are. Basketball New Zealand puts stats online which is helpful to find out who the middle scorers are. You might throw in one or two different things each game, otherwise, you must trust your systems.”
Rodgers didn’t trust his swollen ankle to get through the preliminary quarter-final against St Thomas of Canterbury College.
Complaints by player Joe McDonald about his health were irritating for Grice. “Joe told me he was sick. ‘Sick mate? This is nationals go and watch the ‘Flu game’ I told him.’
Grice was referring to the famous Flu Game - Game Five of the 1997 NBA finals. Riddled with the illness, Michael Jordan hit the game-winner for the Chicago Bulls. The inspiration of Jordan proved the perfect medicine for McDonald as he emulated MJ.
“They had a contested three to win which hit the back of the rim, but a shot by Joe with only seconds left was another shift in belief upwards,” Grice said.
McDonald was too shattered to recover for the quarter-final, so sick on the bench he had to be dragged home by his mum, Sopo. But there was no way Rodgers and Morris were missing another encounter with St Patrick's College, Silverstream. Another epic tussle was a true showcase of capital basketball.
"We're undersized in Wellington, so we tend to full-court press on defence and get out running on offence. It makes for a quicker spectacle but demands a lot of fitness, " Grice observed.
Rodgers agreed: "It was pretty tough sliding and bringing the ball up on one foot. Dov took on a lot more duties which allowed me to look for corner opportunities and Dov to do his thing. He was huge. He missed the New Zealand team last year. This year Dov was MVP."
Rodgers contributed a dozen points in the 76-71 win, putting Wellington into the National semis for the first time since 2001.
Rotorua Boys' High School were the pre-tournament favourites. Prolific-scoring Christian Vano was an MVP-calibre talent. A typically strong start held Wellington in good stead initially until Vano became impossible to contain - forcing Grice’s hand. He turned to Ezekiel Whitfield, with the bleach-blonde hair.
“Christian was killing us. He had 30 points by the third quarter, so we put Ezekiel on him for the rest of the game. That was his only assignment, get Vano. Ezekiel shut him down. He only hit a couple more buckets and we clawed it back,” Grice says.
Rodgers' triple with only seconds left was one of the biggest shots of the tournament. Wellington won 91-82.
News of Wellington’s momentum was spreading. So much so, several members of the 1983 and 1984 teams, who were runners-up at Nationals, made the trek to Central Energy Trust Arena for the final.
Phil Jones is New Zealand basketball royalty. He played 22 seasons in the NBL for the Nelson Giants and logged 163 internationals for the Tall Blacks between 1995 and 2010. He coaches Waimea College and together with his son Hayden, the pair catapulted the Southerners into the final undefeated.
Like his dad, Hayden boats a deadeye shot but he was subbed early as Wellington made their customary strong start at one stage leading 44-32. Jones eventually caught fire and a slog ensued.
“They went up two or there in the last quarter which was the first time I felt like we might be losing grip,” Rodgers explained. “I got a layup over their big dude to put us up two with 40 seconds left, and then it got to the point they had to foul.
“When it was over, I couldn’t believe the number of Old Boys reaching out. I didn’t realise how much they cared.” Wellington had triumphed 77-72.
Ironically headmaster and former Tall Blacks Olympian, Glen Denham, missed the tournament - on business in England. Grice quipped, "He might find us some players."
Denham was naturally delighted with the result. As a player himself, he finished runner-up twice at Nationals with King’s High School, Dunedin in 1981 and 1982.
At a school assembly on Monday, the widow of the late Vic Paulson, Chloe Khasoulides, was acknowledged in front of the school. Vic was a teacher at Wellington College from 1974 to 2014 and is considered the "godfather" of the sport at Col. Denham had many on court tussles with Paulson.
Grice joined Wellington College midway through 2021. They hadn't won a game. In 2022 he took them to the Pohlen Trophy final having helped Tawa College win the same prize in 2020.
"As the years go by the boys will appreciate the enormity of what they've done. It's a massive tournament and everyone in this team contributed. It was such a great ride,” Grice said.
Rodgers realises that already, and has a special acknowledgement of his own. "Oh yeah. Can I thank my mum? Lisa is the manager. She loves it.”
Wellington College Nationals 2023
Coach: Tom Grice
Assistant Coaches: Malachi Collins, Mike Morris
Squad: Isaiah Brown, Ethan Fraenkel, Kael Kincaid, Wesley Kirwan, Sam Mastreani, Joseph McDonald, Ieremia Morris, Fred Oppenhuis, Troy Plumtree, Murphy Rodgers, Dov Silberstien, Ezekiel Whitfield.
Results & Top Points Scorer
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