TEMPE – There were whispers.
Keep the game close for 32 minutes against the Desert Vista girls basketball team and watch their cohesion deteriorate.
The line of thinking was put to a test Friday in the Division I state semifinals and the Thunder answered those murmurs loud and clear with a comeback 54-49 win over No. 1 Dobson to send the program to its second state title game.
“I know exactly how they are going to react right now,” Desert Vista coach J’ontar Coleman said. “They’re going to pull together. They are going to have each other’s backs and get the job done.”
The fifth-seeded Thunder (29-2) let an eight-point first quarter lead develop into a seven-point deficit when Dobson’s Tori Lloyd (18 points) connected on a 3-pointer for a 34-27 lead for the Mustangs with just under 5 minutes left in the game.
It was soon after that that the Thunder made a concerted effort to get the ball to 6-foot-4 Kristine Anigwe, who seemingly played with a higher intensity as she scored eight points in the 13-6 run to tie the game at 40.
“I wanted this win and the team needed me,” said Anigwe, who scored 15 of her 20 points in the second half after being saddled with foul trouble in the first. “I was going to do whatever the team needed.”
The new intensity looked like it might hurt them as the junior was called for an intentional foul with less than a minute to go as Dobson’s Miyah Leith connected on both free throws to close within 50-49.
The Mustangs (30-3) kept possession but were unable to produce any points when a offensive foul on the Mustangs put Thunder sophomore Tatum Brimley on the line with 37.5 seconds left in a 1-an-1 situation.
After junior Sabrina Haines tapped her on the bottom with some words of encouragement, Brimley banked the first one and made the second one cleanly for a 52-49 lead.
“It wasn’t about her being a sophomore or anything,” said Haines, who finished with 13 points and eight rebounds. “It was about encouraging her when she needed it.”
The Mustangs chose not to use their final timeout put up two awkward 3-pointers and Haines came away with the rebound and made two free throws on the other end to seal it.
“We aren’t done yet,” Haines said. “We’ve been focused on winning the state championship all year and we still have one more to go.”
The Mustangs had that same goal, but came up a couple of games short when they were unable to stop Anigwe and Emily Wolph, who drilled a 3–pointer for a 47-44 lead before eventually fouling out with 15 points.
“We played well,” Mustangs coach Tyler Dumas said. “We executed and did what we wanted to do. Really it comes down to if we could stop Kristine and we didn’t. She’s the one who had to win it for them.
“We are blue collared kids who come to work. I’m not saying we came from scratch because we have good players. Sometimes the athleticism and big-time players are just too much to overcome.”
The Thunder get their second chance to win a state title, hoping to do what the 2004 team was unable to do when they finished finished as runner-up.
Desert Vista will get that shot against a team it hasn't faced this season in No. 6 Westview (27-5) after the Knights used a buzzer beater to get past No. 10 Hamilton, on Saturday at 1 p.m. at Jobing.com Arena.
The Thunder feel they’ve answered everything, including a few whispers, thrown their way this season.
“I don’t know if I am going to sleep tonight,” guard Jahnae Martin said, “but I do know we will be ready to finish what we started.”
Contact writer: (480) 898-7915 or JSkoda@ahwatukee.com. Follow him on Twitter @JSkoda AFN.