For a school that's never been this far, the Hamilton postgame locker room was eerily silent.
The Huskies had just dispatched of three-time defending champion (from 5A Division II) Tolleson, but there was no loud music, cheering or yelling from the girls in black.
Hamilton advanced to its first Division I girls basketball state tournament semifinal in school history, and will face Mountain View in the second semifinal game of the afternoon at Jobing.com Arena, but even this new path wasn't good enough for the Huskies.
A few smiles eventually flashed as they left the locker room, and forward Aliyah Dickson - a big reason behind Hamilton's tournament run, finally smiled and said, "I'm happy. I'm excited."
"We've talked about getting here, but we want to go further," Huskies coach Jeff Kain said. "It's not like we wanted to just get here and call it good."
Oddly enough, little was (or allegedly has been said internally) about last season's playoffs. These two teams met in the first round of the state tournament. Hamilton trailed by one point in the final 10 seconds, Mountain View had six players on the court defensively while Hamilton went down the court a final time following a timeout (which is a technical foul and would have been a Hamilton free throw and possession).
Amidst the Hamilton bench's screams, no whistle was blown, the final play continued and the Huskies missed their final shot and the Toros advanced.
"It's not always going to be fair," senior guard Lauren Evans said.
The Toros, too, have another step to take. Mountain View won the state title in 1998, but lost in the semifinals in two of the past three years (to Chandler in 2011 and Highland in 2009) and fell to Red Mountain in the 5A-I championship game in 2007.
But the Toros' defense stymied Chandler's size inside and contained Simone Westbrook (as did foul trouble). Since Hamilton isn't a "big" team either, this matchup of defense-minded teams of mostly-guards and wing players (Evans, Dickson, Ashlee Moore, Kyndall Adams and Cassidee Ranger for Hamilton; Arnecia Hawkins, Armani Hawkins, Rene Coggins and Jordan Jensen for Mountain View) could make for a narrow, evenly-played matchup.
Speaking of history, Dobson and St. Mary's have a bit of one.
The Mustangs beat St. Mary's in the 2010 state championship game in overtime. Dobson was a senior-heavy group of kids who were beaten repeatedly by the likes of Gilbert and Highland (whom Dobson beat in this season's fourth matchup during Monday's state quarterfinals after falling in the three previous games).
This time, the Mustangs have a few kids from the 2010 team (Katherine Hamilton, Hailey Wendt, Kelley Harris, Moniek Albach), and coach Tyler Dumas believes his group has grown up substantially. That was evident by the Mustangs' win against Highland after three narrow losses.
"We had to impose our style vs. their style," Dumas said. "We struggled with that against Highland this year. It was a little bit of a mental hurdle. We've gotten a lot of maturity from our sophomores and Katherine's focus has been much better. We controlled Pinnacle (in the second round) and the two freshman (Dyesha Stahley and Deja McKinney) and a couple seniors have played well for us."
St. Mary's, however, is the defending big-school champion, undefeated this season (power points and tournament games) and is No. 1 in the nation according to a couple national websites. The core group of Knights that are currently sophomores and juniors (no seniors on the roster) were freshman and sophomores during the 2010 and championship season of 2011.
They haven't played each other since, but they've watched film. And Dumas did some analyst work of the St. Mary's-Windward (Los Angeles) game during the MLK Basketball Classic in late January.
Dumas knows Curtis Ekmark's players on the floor can do everything for St. Mary's. Dobson's goal in this matchup is to have fewer than 25 turnovers against the Knights' pressure defense. When turnovers occur, the Mustangs need to give themselves a chance to get back defensively instead of giving up easy points in transition. Avoiding lengthy St. Mary's runs (as Dobson did effectively in the ‘10 championship game) was also cited as key.
So, too, is hoping for the best. The Knights come in as heavy favorites, having won its two tournament games by 37 and 38 points, respectively.
Of course, the Mustangs weren't given much of a chance two years ago.
"We're going to have to play a really, really good game and have them play a little out of character, miss a few shots," Dumas said. "They're No. 1 in the country for a reason."
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.