Blondy Baruti's Mesa High teammates tried gamely Tuesday night to present him with a nice 18th birthday present after the Mesa High faithful sang "Happy Birthday" to him at halftime. The Jackrabbits, however, fell a few minutes short of that quest.
Second-ranked Mesa Mountain View took advantage of the 6-foot-9 Baruti's absence from the lineup as the Toros Eric Hunt and Asaad Woods led a late fourth-quarter surge that produced a 69-54 5A East Valley Region victory over Mesa High at Jackrabbit Gym.
Woods led Mountain View with 25 points and Hunt, who battled foul trouble all night, managed 18. Nine of Hunt's 18 came in the fourth period; 14 in the second half. Mesa dropped to 10-6 overall and 0-1 in region play.
Baruti, a transfer from the Congo, has captured the hearts of Mesa High fans with his passionate play the first 15 games of the season. Chants of "Blondy, Blondy" were heard periodically all night by the student body and teammates exchanged handshakes and high-fives with him during warmups with his No. 44 jersey draped over his shoulders.
An allegation that Baruti may have been recruited to come to Mesa High has surfaced in the last week and led Monday to Mesa High's administration meeting with the Arizona Interscholastic Association. Mesa High will report on the findings of its investigation by the end of the week. As a result, the school decided Tuesday morning that Baruti would not participate in games this week.
On the court Tuesday night, the game was typical of a Mountain View-Mesa matchup. Hard fought and intense.
Mountain View (16-1, 1-0) managed nine-point leads twice early in the first period and early in the third. Both times Mesa answered those deficits and took brief but narrow leads, often thanks to the offensive prowess of leading scorer and point guard Donte Medder (25 points). Mesa's final lead in the contest was 48-47 with 5:37 left to play.
But seven consecutive points - all in the paint by Hunt - put Mountain View back in front to stay at 54-50 with 3:25 to go. The Toros switch to a 1-3-1 defense to combat the constant successful penetration of Medder worked and the Toros sank 11-of-12 free throws down the stretch to make the tight game look like a rout that it wasn't. Woods was 10-of-10 from the line in the final period and 17-of-18 for the night.
"We got a lot of offensive rebounds and point inside we wouldn't have if their big man would have played," Mountain View coach Gary Ernst said. "We got a couple pretty good leads and they came back both times. Give them a lot of credit. They gave us a great game."
Mesa coach Shane Burcar wasn't surprised that his team nearly pulled off a win.
"We're going to come at you and fight, that's who we are," Burcar said. "No matter who we have or don't have we'll come at you. It got away from us a little at the end and they made a bunch of free throws. It was a great effort."