Is Dymond the difference? Fans find out today when No. 1 Red Mountain and No. 2 St. Mary's settle the 5A Division I girls basketball championship at 5 p.m. at Glendale Arena.
It's the first championship game appearance in school history for Red Mountain's girls, who are 27-4 and have won 18 straight games since losing in the West Coast Jamboree in late December. St. Mary's (25-4) is trying for its second title in three years. It has a group of seniors who have reached the final four their entire career, including the focal point, Arizona State-bound guard Dymond Simon. Simon, who missed 14 games this season due to injury, did not play when Red Mountain defeated St. Mary's 55-53 Jan. 16 in the Martin Luther King Jr. Classic at Wells Fargo Arena.
‘‘There's not a player in the state that plays like she does,’’ Red Mountain coach Martin Appel said of Simon. ‘‘We won't stop her. She'll get her points. We want to minimize the situations she can hurt us.’’
St. Mary's led most of the first meeting. The Knights, however, failed to score in the final 6:10 and the Mountain Lions prevailed. The game was hauntingly similar to last year's 5A title game when a similar fourth-quarter slump befell the Knights against Highland.
Red Mountain prevailed the first time with junior center Kayla Pedersen leading the way with 21 points and seven rebounds. Senior Nicole Neals and freshman Davellyn Whyte tallied 18 points apiece in that game. ‘‘Having Dymond back makes a big difference,” St. Mary's coach Frank Denogean said. ‘‘We have seniors who have been in a lot of big games. Davellyn (Whyte) has been in this situation now. She’s not a freshman now. She adds a dimension. With Dymond back we're a deeper team this time.”
St. Mary’s, of course, is more than Simon. Nebraska-bound Neals has turned in a superb season picking up some of the offensive slack due to Simon's injury. Senior center and ASU-bound Kayli Murphy is a force in the post although she didn't have the output she's used to in the first meeting (six points).
Teams that can handle St. Mary's pressure and slow the tempo seemingly have the best chance of success slowing or beating the Knights. Still they must execute. That's what Appel confidently believes the Mountain Lions can do with a lineup that includes transfer guards Bonnie Barbee, McKenzie Crum and Amanda Bartlett.
‘‘St. Mary's' style intimidates people,’’ Appel said. “Players on other teams step out there, and are already thinking and worrying about their press and the up-and-down, up-and-down that's coming. I think we've improved a lot since the season began and are playing better than we did when we met last time.’’