Scottsdale Saguaro was aching to prove it could win without Nick Witherill.
It did so for the first time in more than three years Wednesday night, with Witherill watching from the opposite bench no less.
Matt Rhodes had 31 points, Dominick Ruth had 22 and Witherill fouled out with 2:45 remaining in overtime as the Sabercats outlasted Gilbert Highland 86-81 in overtime of the Salpointe Tip-Off Classic at Chandler High.
Seniors Rhodes, Ruth and Witherill had all started together since they were freshmen at Saguaro until Witherill transferred to Highland over the summer in a publicized flap.
Witherill was Saguaro’s leading scorer last season and has a scholarship to Washington State. Saguaro coach Bob LaRue was confident his squad could win without him this season, but the Sabercats started the young season 0-2.
“Both teams wanted to play this game for obvious reasons,” LaRue said. “We finally came out and played with some emotion, which was lacking the first two games. We were scrapping more today.”
“We were hyped,” Rhodes said. “We were hyped for a long time for this game. It feels good. I think we just silenced all the critics.”
The Hawks trailed most of the game, but had a chance to win in regulation when Chris Johnson went to the free-throw line with two seconds left and the score tied at 69-69. He missed both attempts and another shot at the buzzer, and Saguaro hit 13 of 14 free throws in overtime for the victory.
Highland freshman point guard Matt Carlino did all he could to keep Highland in the contest, scoring 28 of his 30 points in the second half, including seven 3-pointers.
“Carlino, he’s the real deal,” LaRue said.
Witherill had a subpar game, scoring 13 points after averaging more than 20 a game last season. He did shoot noticeably less than last season while trying to create more for his teammates.
He’s still in a transition period after just three summer games and three high school games under his belt with the Hawks.
“We haven’t played many games together, so we’re just trying to get our chemistry right,” Witherill said.
Witherill said it was a hard game for him to play, and he actually contemplated sitting out. He said he accidentally went over to the Saguaro bench to look for his bag during pregame warm-ups.
“I wasn’t really mentally in it,” Witherill said. “It was like I was playing on both teams. ... I love all the guys on that (Saguaro) team. We’re still the best of friends. All the hype and stuff was overrated. We’re still boys and it’s not a big deal.”