Earlier this week, St. Mary’s head coach Curtis Ekmark said his team’s toughest opponent at the Nike Tournament of Champions might be the fatigue factor following a series of final exams and a lack of practice time.
Ekmark’s greatest fears were realized Friday night, as the reigning two-time Division I state champions saw their 48-game win streak fall by the wayside in a tightly-contested 57-54 loss to Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) at Hamilton High School.
In a showdown with USA Today’s No. 3 team in the country, the top-ranked Knights couldn't quite live up to their end of the bargain in the first half, scoring just 29 points against the Monarchs on 1-of-11 shooting from three-point range.
St. Mary’s leading scorer this season, junior guard Courtney Ekmark (a University of Connecticut commit), was blanketed by a sea of Mater Dei defenders the entire evening. She finished with 16 points but made only 6 of 16 shots from the field, which set a tone for the night that would never be undone.
The Monarchs raced out to a 40-23 lead behind seven three-pointers and maintained the double-digit margin heading into halftime.
“The good news is that we fought, but the bad news is we showed up 16 minutes late,” Curtis Ekmark said. “We dug ourselves too deep of a hole and just couldn’t get out if it.”
In the second half, Washington-bound forward Chantel Osahor helped St. Mary’s dig out of that hole, scoring 10 of her 14 points over the final 16 minutes of play.
The Knights briefly tied the game at 45-45 midway through the third quarter, but the cost of playing from behind most of the contest eventually caught up to Osahor and Co.
For a team that hadn’t lost since January 2011, let alone trailed in a game all season, heading into the fourth quarter with a three-point deficit didn’t seem all that daunting. But Ekmark foreshadowed a possible case of tired legs, and it seemed to set in at the worst possible time.
With a chance to keep their mythical national title hopes alive, St. Mary’s simply couldn’t muster the energy to match Mater Dei late.
When the Knights needed a big shot, they couldn’t buy a bucket. When the Knights needed a big stop, Monarchs' guards Karlie Samuelson (18 points on 8-of-11 shooting) and Peyton Langston (15 points on 6-of-9 shooting) still found ways to break through the Knights' pressure defense for easy baskets.
Although Mater Dei kept hope alive for St. Mary’s in the fourth quarter by turning the ball over seven times, it couldn't complete the comeback.
At the end of regulation, St. Mary’s still had a chance to force overtime but couldn’t get a game-tying attempt from three-point range as time expired. Yet even in defeat, Ekmark was his usual optimistic self.
“I don’t remember us being down 17 points, maybe ever,” he said. “This group never quit. They came back and played as hard as they could have possibly played. I’m really proud of them, because I don’t feel we lost, I feel like we ran out of time.”
While the clock likely struck midnight on the Knights’ chances of becoming back-to-back national champions, the powerhouse program still has plenty to play for in 2012-13, namely trying to be the first Arizona school in the biggest classifications to win three consecutive state championships.
“We should still be more happy than sad about this,” Osahor said. “We have a lot left in front of us. We can learn from this as we try to go for another state championship. We played hard, we didn’t give up and I think a good can really come out of this bad.”