Wide-margin victories by Highland, Chandler, St. Mary’s and Xavier girls basketball teams all had a commonality working for them in the first round of the 5A Division I state tournament earlier this week.
It came up big during Mountain View’s 9-0 run in the fourth quarter that helped the Toros slip by Desert Vista. The same could be said for Hamilton’s big early lead and ability to hold on late against hard-charging Dobson.
Chaparral, Horizon and Pinnacle needed it in the first round of 5A Division II. So did Seton Catholic, which is one victory away from a second consecutive 4A-II state championship.
Guards have ruled the gyms in the early portion of the Class 5A state tournament, and while it’s a commonality circulating through these successful schools, it’s hardly a coincidence at the higher levels.
“When you’re playing better competition at this level, you have to handle the pressure,” Highland coach Miner Webster said. “Play a year without a good point guard and that’ll tell you how important it is.”
This tournament is full of high-pressure, trapping teams, led by St. Mary’s, Chandler, Hamilton and Xavier. That makes Mountain View and Highland backcourts its best countermeasure to the frenetic pace and chaotic game full-court pressure can instigate.
It worked for Hamilton for most of the first half against Dobson, as the Huskies swarmed the Mustangs with on-the-ball defense and then trapping at random intervals. The turnovers helped Hamilton build a double-digit lead, and when Hamilton had to back off because of foul trouble, Dobson’s backcourt helped the Mustangs get back into the game.
The Mustangs were well-versed during their 2010 championship season because of an experienced backcourt that had seen Chandler, Hamilton, Pinnacle a couple times in their careers (including during that season) and knew how to handle the pace and pressure.
“Experienced guards is a big deal,” Dobson coach Tyler Dumas said. “You need kids who’ve been through that. When you get into the arena (at semifinals and championship games), everyone struggles, especially without the experience. So it comes down to defense and execution.”
That, most say, starts with the backcourt. Practically every team left in the tournaments spanning all classifications have at least two guards their coaches feel can be relied on to handle pressure, make a play on offense in crucial times or slow the ball on defense.
“Each round you move forward it becomes tougher to run,” Mountain View coach Henry Bribiescas said. “You need someone who can run the offense when Helter-Skelter game can grind down.”
Seton, however, might be a partial exception. In a year when most of the East Valley’s top players are guards, the Sentinels — along with Chaparral and Chandler — also have a key inside presence. The Sentinels have Theresa Wirth, plus Julia Barcello and Heather Heild inside.
So while Kayla Bustos, Morgan Huppenthal and Briana Bricher are the steady backcourt most championship teams have, it’s not necessarily a guards-run-the-show approach.
“Kayla definitely dictates pace as a guard, but it depends on the team,” Sentinels coach Karen Self said. “It’s who controls the pace and that depends on the makeup of your team. The ones that dictates pace wins, wherever that comes from. Theresa is very much our calming influence.”
Self noted Phoenix Thunderbird has two of the best guards in 4A-II and instead slowed the pace against Flagstaff, a team that normally wants to trap-and-run, but Flagstaff guards couldn’t operate in a half-court game. It worked for Thunderbird, who’ll meet Seton in Saturday’s championship.
At the 5A level, however, the view was a little more unanimous. Most consider this season to be much deeper at guard than in the post.
That means from Chaparral (Casey Rarrick and Jenna Savaya) to Highland (Alyssa Heeman, Jordan Hagen and Cassie Damyanovich), to Mountain View (Arnecia Hawkins and Rene Coggins) to Hamilton (Lauren Evans, Erin Curry and Kyndall Adams) to practically everyone at St. Mary’s and Xavier, making it to the top starts with the kids at the top.
“It’s hard to take a good guard out of the game, it’s a lot easier to take away a good post by sagging or double-teaming,” Webster said. “When you’re playing better competition at this level, you have to handle the pressure.”
“Will your guards make plays and fewer mistakes than the opponent?” Bribiescas said. “At this stage going forward, that’s what it comes down to.”