The Corona del Sol boys basketball team won last year’s Division I title and followed it up by earning the No. 1 seed in this year’s state tournament.
But through the first two games of the playoffs, the Aztecs weren’t acting or looking anything like a juggernaut.
It took double overtime to outlast Mountain Pointe in the second round and clutch plays late to squeak by Goodyear Millennium in the quarterfinals, but somehow Corona del Sol survived both.
On Thursday night, the team with realistic repeat aspirations was back.
Casey Benson scored 22 points and Adam Gleave added 13 and 11 rebounds as Corona del Sol defeated No. 5 Desert Mountain, 61-53, in the Division I state semifinals at Wells Fargo Arena.
The Aztecs seemed to previously be tip-toeing through the playoffs, and finally they found a groove.
“I got on our guys hard yesterday,” Corona del Sol coach Sam Duane said. “We were playing on our heels. I told our guys, ‘You know what? We’re the champions. We’re acting like we’re not supposed to win. We’ve really got to let it all hang out tomorrow.’ And I think we did that tonight.”
Corona del Sol’s chance for a repeat will go through Pinnacle, which defeated Laveen Cesar Chavez in the other semifinal earlier in the day. The teams will face off on Saturday at 4 p.m. at Jobing.com Arena.
The Aztecs beat the Pioneers by four points in late-December at the VisitMesa.com Challenge.
“We just have to play as hard as possible and leave everything on the floor,” Benson said. “No regrets.”
The key sequence of this game came with under three minutes to go and Corona del Sol clinging to a four-point lead. Bryan Siefker read a cross-court pass and deflected it hard into the backcourt. It looked to be rolling out of bounds, but he chased it down and called timeout.
Benson scored on the ensuing possession to push the lead to six and forced Desert Mountain to play catch-up.
The Wolves, though, wouldn’t fold.
Brant Carter answered with a 3-pointer, and following a Benson free throw, a bucket by Rolando Rhymes pulled Desert Mountain to within two points with 1:22 remaining.
The deficit was four with under a minute to go, but a missed 3-pointer by Diego Magana sealed the Wolves’ fate.
Corona del Sol shot much better in this one, hitting 6-of-9 3-pointers in the first half and its final five free throws to clinch the win.
Rhymes finished with 18 points and eight rebounds to lead the Wolves, while Will Goff added 16. Desert Mountain shot just 36.5 percent from the field for the game and 28 percent from 3-point range.
Desert Mountain 10 17 7 19 -- 53
Corona del Sol 15 14 11 21 -- 61
Desert Mountain: Rhymes 18, Goff 16, Andrews 8, Carter 6, Littles 3, Magana 2.
Corona del Sol: Benson 22, Gleave 13, Tennyson 9, Siefker 7, Peat 6, Givens 4.