For the first two-plus quarters of play Saturday night, No. 4 Desert Mountain was executing coach Todd Fazio’s game plan to perfection in the boys Division I, Section III final.
Having already lost twice to Pinnacle this season, Fazio and Co. recognized that they key to beating the Pioneers was to slow the pace of the game at offensive end and limit paint opportunities at the defensive end.
With guard Rolando Rhymes (14 points and five assists) running the show, the Wolves (23-5, 14-4) appeared to be well on their way to a section championship. That is until things went awry late in the third quarter.
Up 36-32 with a little over three minutes to go in the period, Rhymes drove to the basket looking to extend Desert Mountain’s lead to six. However, the junior failed to convert on the layup and landed awkwardly on his back moments later.
Although Rhymes only went to bench for the final moments of the quarter, Pinnacle (23-6, 15-3) seized the opportunity and quickly turned the game into a track meet. By the time the buzzer sounded to end the period, the Pioneers had reeled off an 8-0 run and were in control of the contest, 40-36.
Senior Drew Bender, who struggled mightily through the first 24 minutes against the Wolves’ 1-3-1 zone, scored 13 of his team-high 19 points in the final frame and Pinnacle coasted to a comfortable 66-60 section-clinching victory.
While Bender put up his usual numbers, coach Charles Wilde noted that the Pioneers’ game-changing spurt to end the third was in large part due to several complementary contributions.
“We were probably tired from an emotional performance last night [against Mesa] and it took us a little while to get going,” Wilde said. “I think a lot of the momentum change had to do with Kenny McCormick coming off the bench in the third quarter. He gives us so much energy. He kind of got us going and hit a big three-point shot.
“And really Lee Andari did the same in paint, giving us offensive rebounds and scoring in the fourth quarter. They both were key reasons why we won.”
Although both teams were likely headed for a first-round bye in the state tournaments before Saturday’s Round Three, a 13-game winning streak and a section title could go a long way towards moving Pinnacle up the Division I power rankings.
Regardless of where they are seeded in the state tournament draw, Bender said this team has what it takes to make a deep run in postseason play.
“Look at a game like tonight,” Bender said. “Desert Mountain is a great team, and they played us incredibly hard the entire time. But we just found a way to get the job done. This team has so many different guys who can step up. I really think we can win state this year.”
For the Wolves, Saturday’s loss marks the second time in eight days that they’ve fallen short against the Pioneers. While a late-season loss is never an ideal way to head into the state tournament, Fazio said he was encouraged by his team’s effort.
“This loss had nothing to do with effort, both teams played hard,” said Fazio. “I like my guys and they’re just trying to get better right now. Really 16 teams have good chance to win a state title. It’s a rare year where there is so much parity that anyone could win it all.”
In the victory, Dorian Pickens scored 15 points and Trey Ingram added 11 points and three assists.
Desert Mountain’s Brant Carter led all scorers with 20 points.