Winning doesn't get old, which is a good thing with Karen Self entrenched at Seton Catholic.
But Saturday's Division II girls basketball state championship, Self's seventh and the Sentinels fourth in five years, was exponentially more meaningful.
As the final seconds wound down on Seton's 37-30 triumph over Vail Cienega, Self embraced longtime assistant coach Tiffany Tate, who received the championship trophy after the players hoisted it over their head toward their fans in one corner of Jobing.com Arena.
Tate is battling cystic fibrosis and is on the donor list awaiting a second double-lung transplant.
Saturday was Tate's 31st birthday.
"We said all season, 'Do it for Tiff; do it for Tiff," a still-emotional Self said. "So to do it on her birthday and have her here is so special.
"We're so grateful she could be here all season. She is the heart of this team."
Self said Tate delivers motivational events, not speeches, before big games. But it was Self's halftime talk that helped inspire her young team.
Seton (32-3) turned a two-point halftime deficit into an eight-point lead as it shut out Cienega in the third quarter. The top-seeded Sentinels suffocated the third-seeded Bobcats and didn't give up the second-chance points that hurt them in the first half.
Cienega didn't score in the second half until the 6:34 mark of the fourth quarter and didn’t register its first second-half field goal for another 2:19 after that.
Self asked her team during halftime if they wanted to win. They said they did.
"Then execute the game plan," Self responded.
"We had to lock down on defense and knew our shots would fall; we had a rough first half," said Julia Barcello, one of just three seniors.
The big third quarter set up Seton but didn't put the game away. The Bobcats went on a 10-4 run once Kelaiah Dillard broke Cienega's scoreless drought with three free throws, and clawed back to within two of the Sentinels.
But freshman LeeAnne Wirth scored on an inbound play with 1:20 left, and Barcello and Jennifer Wirth hit four free throws in the final minute to seal yet another title for Self'.
She trails only Miner Webster for the most girls basketball state championships. Webster won six at Highland and two at Gilbert.
"I knew about all the championships coming to Seton," said LeeAnne Wirth, who overcame a double knee fracture, a fractured vertebra and a double fracture in her wrist in the past 15 months. "But we couldn't think that was going to be enough. We try to be the best defensive team and we were able to do that in the third quarter."
LeeAnne Wirth and Barcello each had 10 points to lead Seton, while Jennifer Wirth had nine points and nine rebounds.
The 37 points were Seton's fewest in any of its title victories.
"We won 39-30 once," Self said of the Sentinels' 1999 title over Thatcher. "Cienega is good. I gave us a 50-50 chance to win coming into the game. If we played tomorrow they would probably win."
Seton, however, probably is the favorite for next season with the Wirth sisters and Liz Holter back for their sophomore seasons among nine returners.
"I think it's in very good hands," Barcello said of the program.
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