Former Seton Catholic girls basketball assistant coach Tiffany Tate had a tradition of creating a theme for every big game her team was involved in.
When she lost her battle to cancer in 2018, longtime Seton Catholic head coach Karen Self upheld the tradition. So it was no surprise the top-ranked Lady Sentinels emerged from the locker room after their nail-biting 39-35 win over fourth-ranked Mesquite in the 4A semifinals Wednesday wearing Avengers masks.
After all, they had just gone to war.
“We knew beating a team for the third time is nearly impossible,” Self said. “They’re very well coached and super talented. We knew it was going to be an absolute grind so this is our Avengers, going to war type of motivational gift to get them in the right mindset.”
The top-ranked team in 4A all season, Seton Catholic now moves on to its eighth straight state championship game and ninth in the last 10 seasons. It’s a milestone that Self admits isn’t one she was focused on going into Wednesday’s contest.
“It’s not something I think about,” Self said. “We are just looking one game at a time.”
The first two meetings between the two 4A powers went Seton Catholic’s way in convincing fashion, with the Sentinels winning by nearly 20 points on both occasions. Wednesday’s meeting, however, was far from the regular-season norm.
The two were locked in a tight defensive battle through the first half, combining for just 30 points. Seton Catholic junior guard Lexi McNabb was the lone Sentinel to find any rhythm on the offensive end of the floor early on.
She finished with 16 points overall.
“This whole year I’ve had to work to perfect a lot of parts of my game and I felt this game was the opportunity to show it,” McNabb said. “It’s hard to beat a team three times. There’s a lot of things we all had to do individually to make sure we got this win.”
While it had a strong performance on defense, Seton Catholic still had some trouble slowing down Mesquite senior and Portland State commit Alaya Fitzgerald. Especially in the fourth quarter — when she led Mesquite’s comeback from a nine-point deficit — Fitzgerald took over on offense for the Wildcats.
She knocked down a pair of three pointers and capitalized on a three-point play that pulled Mesquite to within one point of Seton Catholic. But in similar fashion, senior Amanda Barcello — who scored her 1,000th career point earlier in the playoffs — helped extend the Sentinel lead late in the final quarter.
Despite a slow start, Barcello finished with 15 points.
“We needed an absolute team effort,” Self said. “We knew this would be a grind. I don’t think we followed our game plan for much of the first half of getting inside. We knew Alaya would collapse on the ball so we wanted to play inside out.
“They’re just a really good defensive team. We had to be better defensively.”
Seton Catholic, chasing its seventh state title under Self, will face second-ranked Salpointe Catholic Saturday in the 4A girls basketball title game at 12 p.m. at St. John Paul II Catholic High School in Avondale.
“It’s my third year to play in the championship and hopefully second we can win,” McNabb said. “We know it’s going to be a grind just like this game and we need to get ready. As soon as practice hits tomorrow we are going to be working hard.”