Mesquite senior Shaylee Gonzales guards Sahuaro freshman Alyssa Brown during their semifinal matchup at Arizona State’s Wells Fargo Arena.

All season long, the No. 2 Mesquite Wildcats have been in pursuit of a second-straight AIA 5A State Championship, and Feb. 20 at Wells Fargo Arena seemed like just another day for the defending state champs.

They defeated No. 3 Sahuaro 80-48 to advance to a state championship matchup with No. 1 Chaparral.

Mesquite jumped out to an early lead in the first quarter behind strong defensive play and an offense that moved the ball from corner to corner in the blink of an eye. Through the first five minutes, the only points Sahuaro could generate came at the free-throw line. They broke through in the fifth minute, with an Alyssa Brown layup and an Alyssa Franke 3. But the Wildcats had already built a considerable lead and were ahead by eight at the end of the first.  

The Wildcats never took their foot of the gas pedal: By three minutes into the second, the defending state champs had extended their lead to 16. They continued to push the ball whenever they could to where senior guard Lindsey VanAllen, who scored 32 on the day, was on the receiving end.

Sahuaro never submitted to the 5A powerhouse that has averaged 82 points a game this season. They kept battling as their two star freshmen, Brown and Franke, continued to pour it in on the offensive end, with multiple rebounds in the paint and clutch baskets from behind the perimeter. With 2:30 remaining, they trailed by only nine.

Coach Candice Gonzales called a timeout and calmed her team down, and the Wildcats came out firing. They implemented a 1-3-1 full-court press that resulted in a 7-0 swing. First, Shaylee Gonzales made a steal, led a fast break for an easy layup and then stole the ensuing inbounds pass for two of her eight first-half points. Then VanAllen capped off the run with an and-one layup to end the half and give her team a 15-point lead heading into the break.

What once seemed like an opening for Sahuaro was quickly closed.

“Just composure,” Gonzales said about the message she gave to her team during that crucial timeout. “I felt like they (Sahuaro) were getting a lot of loose balls and they were converting off those loose balls. So, I just wanted to call a timeout, let them regain their composure, get some confidence and get back out there. Then they got a couple steals and it kind of took us into halftime.”

Mesquite never let up after that. By the end of the third, they led by 19 and by the time the final buzzer sounded the Wildcats had won by 32, securing their third straight trip to the state championship.

“It feels good, but it isn’t the only feeling,” VanAllen said after the Wildcats captured their berth into the state championship. “We want to win the title game and I think that’s the most important thing.”

To take home that second straight state championship, VanAllen thinks there will be one crucial thing they will have to focus on in order to hoist the golden ball trophy at the end of the game Tuesday evening in Wells Fargo Arena.

“Defense,” VanAllen said. “I feel like our defense always leads to our offense and were able to leak out and get easy baskets.”

The Wildcats will take on No. 1 Chaparral in the AIA 5A State Championship at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 27, at Wells Fargo Arena.

– Contact Greg Macafee at gmacafee@timespublications.com or at 480-898-5630 or follow @greg_macafee on Twitter and the Sports Department at @TMG__sports.

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