Dynamic Duo: Sand Devils bring home 3A state titles

Photos by Steven Law/Special to the Chronicle
Above: Back row, from left – Team manager Marah Little, Assistant coach Gerrald Begay, Francine Keyonnie, Neve Redhair, Miquedah Taliman, Torrance Begay, Trinity Curley, Nadya Begay, Diana Secody, Arianna Jenkins, Chamique Nez, Keira Jenkins, Calla Smith, Head Coach Ryan Whitehorse, Assistant coach Darlisa Tsinnie. Front row – Jade Reid, Kaydence Tsinigine, Emma Yazzie and Lynzie Tree
Below: From left: Head Coach Justin Smith, Orlandon Yazzie, Joel Beard, Nolan McCormick, Bryce Williams, Aidan Nix, Seth Deering, Chad Wood, Stuart Sandall, Jonah Holiday, Robert Smith, Assistant Coach LeLand Billie, Dahntay Dugi, Assistant coach Joe Wright and Assistant coach Steven Smith.

MESA, Ariz. – For the third time in five years, the Lady Sand Devils carried home the state championship trophy after defeating the Snowflake Lobos 36-32.

The victory capped what has been a superlative 15-0 season for Page. Saturday’s game marked the Lady Sand Devils fifth straight visit to the state championship game. Ryan Whitehorse has been head coach of the Lady Sand Devils all five seasons.

Three of this year’s seniors – Torrance Begay, Neve Redhair and Nadya Begay – have played at the varsity level all four years, taking part in three state titles and a state championship runner-up.

In what turned out to be the season’s most exciting game, the Lady Sand Devils defeated the Thatcher Eagles in overtime Wednesday to advance to the championship game. It was Torrance Begay’s buzzer-beater shot against Thatcher in the semifinals that sent the game into overtime.

The championship game was the second time Page and Snowflake have squared off this season. The Sand Devils beat the Lobos 40-21 when the teams met for the first time in February.

The Lobos played much more aggressively in the championship game. They even adopted Page’s full-court pressure defense. But their efforts at full-court defense had little effect for three reasons.

One: Miquedah Taliman, Nadya Begay and Torrance Begay are all excellent ball handlers, and three excellent ball handlers was too much for the Lobos to corral. Torrance, who typically spends the better part of the offense posting up near the basket, spent a large portion of Saturday’s game bringing the ball up the court for the Lady Sand Devils.

“She’s a very versatile player,” Whitehorse said after the game. “They were so focused on Miquedah bringing the ball up the court, so I had Torrance do it for a while.”

Two: the reason the Lobos’ full-court press amounted to little was that the Sand Devils practice against it nearly every practice. Whitehorse gave credit to his second team for that.

“Our second group does a great job pressuring our first team,” he said. “We’re used to it.”

Three: the reason the Lobos’ full-court pressure had little effect is that they didn’t score very much. To run an effective full-court pressure defense one has to score and then form into defense while the opponent is inbounding the pass. But the Lobos didn’t score enough for this to happen and Page simply outran them on the transition after getting the rebound.

The Lobos got a quick shot in the arm, scoring on their first two possessions. They were able to maintain their lead the first seven minutes of the game.

Sand Devils fans got a little concerned when Redhair, the 3A Central Defensive Player of the Year, got her second foul of the game with 3:10 left in the first quarter. Whitehorse replaced her for the duration of the quarter with Jade Reid.

The Sand Devils were trailing 5-10 at the end of the quarter when Torrance Begay hit a bucket from the paint. Taliman followed that with two free throws. On the quarter’s final possession, Taliman tight-roped along the baseline and put up an acrobatic under-the-basket scoop seconds before the buzzer sounded, giving her team the lead for the first time in the game. The Sand Devils led 11-10 at the end of the first quarter.

Chamique Nez started the second quarter with a steal. She brought the ball to the top of the key then dished it to Emma Yazzie who was waiting at the three-point line. Her shot sizzled through the net.

Taliman put in a floater and on the next possession – after another steal – dealt a crisp assist to Nez sailing between defenders, who banked in a layup.

The Lobos regrouped and regained their composure after that and were able to match the Sand Devils’ run.  The Sand Devils led 20-18 at halftime.

Torrance tore it up in the third quarter with six points and a blocked shot, leading a 10 to 5 scoring run against Snowflake.

Leading 30-23 going into the fourth quarter, the Sand Devils slowed down the pace of the game considerably and moved into a three-man weave offense designed to eat time off the clock. Whitehorse called out for his team to “be patient” from the sidelines.

After the Lobos hit a 3-point shot with 3:30 left in the game, they trailed by five points and began intentionally fouling the Sand Devils in hopes of rebounding a missed free throw and turning the rebound into points on the other end. But it was a case of too little, too late for the Lobos; they couldn’t muster the offense to bridge the scoring gap.

The Sand Devils won the third state championship in five years by a score of 36-32.

“It felt great!” Whitehorse exclaimed. “It really means a lot to us and the community after COVID shut everything down and almost had our season canceled. And to do it undefeated made it even greater.”

There were several keys to the Sand Devils’ victory. One: they had experienced players. Torrance Begay and Miquedah Taliman have started for the Sand Devils the last two seasons. They were unflappable and their leadership really showed.

The second factor falls on the shoulders of the Lobos. They had more than a dozen opportunity shots from near the basket, but rather than square up and take a proper shot, they panicked under pressure and took hurried, flustered shots that missed the mark.

The Sand Devils assistant coaches are Charlotte Nockideneh, Darlisa Tsinnie and Gerrald Begaye.

MESA, Ariz. – For the first time in Page High School history, the Sand Devils boys varsity basketball team came home with the state championship trophy. And the victory net.

Head Coach Justin Smith is one of the only coaches in the state to win both a boys and a girls state championship. Smith coached the Lady Sand Devils to a state title in 2015.

The Sand Devils finished the season with a very impressive 14-4 overall record.

This was the second time this season that Page played Snowflake. The teams first met in February, when the Sand Devils lost to the Lobos 69-76.

Throughout the season, Sand Devils fans had the opportunity to watch their team improve and mature game by game.

By the end of the season the Sand Devils were putting together some impressive offensive sequences, playing tight defense and notching some important wins.

Even after some very stellar wins – such as the third win over Camp Verde – Smith would tell the media that his team hadn’t yet peaked.

“We still haven’t played our best game,” he said during the state quarterfinals, “but we’re peaking at the right time.”

And that did.

The Lobos jumped out to a 7-4 lead in what would be a fast-paced game from the tipoff to the final buzzer. But then the Sand Devils tightened their defense and went on a 7-0 scoring run. 

Jonah Holiday hit a free throw and Robert Smith put in a 3-pointer to give the Sand Devils their first lead of the game, 8-7, with 3:00 left in the first quarter. Smith ended the quarter making a slash to the basket, which drew additional defenders his way.

And after the defenders had committed, he passed the ball off to Stuart Sandall who finished the play with a stretching layup. The Sand Devils finished the first quarter leading 11-7.

Holiday continued to hit 3-point blitzes in the second quarter, hitting two of them back-to-back in the quarter’s opening minutes. Orlandon Yazzie a couple minutes later hit a 3-pointer as well.  As the Snowflake defense stretched out to guard Sand Devils shooters on the perimeter, Robert Smith, Yazzie and Joel Beard attacked the interior where they would finish the play or pass to Sandall.

It was all too overwhelming for the Lobos who were unable to keep pace with the Sand Devils, who built their lead 30-19 at halftime.

During the third quarter, Justin Smith continued with what had worked well in the second quarter: Robert Smith, Yazzie and Beard attacking the inside – always watching for Sandall posted up – while Holiday and Dugi continued to rain down 3-pointers.

The Lobos offense was able to match the Sand Devils runs but were unable to close the point gap. The Sand Devils led 42 to 32 at the end of the third quarter.

The fourth quarter began with an alley-oop from Robert Smith to Sandall which really got the Sand Devils faithful on their feet in the Eastmark Arena. Sandall then returned the favor, dishing off to Smith cutting inside after drawing multiple defenders to him.

The Sand Devils defense was noticeably better in the championship game than it had been when the two teams met in February.

“A big part of our game plan was keeping pressure on Michael Brimhall,” Justin Smith said. “He’s their best scorer and ball handler.”

Robert Smith, who was awarded 3A North Central Defensive Player of the Year, was given the assignment of guarding Brimhall, and he was very effective, holding Brimhall well below his season scoring average.

“Robert made him work for everything he got,” Justin Smith said.

Having built a sizable lead, the Sand Devils moved to a three-man weave and slowed down the pace to eat time off the clock. With 2:30 left in the game the Lobos still trailed by 10 points. Their coach and all their fans in the bleachers, began yelling for the Lobos to foul, which they did.

The Sand Devils hit their free throws, giving the Lobos no chance to chip away at the lead.

The final score read Sand Devils 64, Lobos 51.

“We peaked at the right time,” Smith said after the game. “This win means everything!”

Justin Smith was proud of the way his team played in the championship game.

“The difference between this game and the time we played them in February was we did a much better job defending them this time, and we hit our free throws,” he said.

Coach Smith was ecstatic with the way his team steadily improved throughout the season, despite the extra obstacles the strange pandemic year threw at them.

“The amount of resolve they showed this year was amazing,” Justin Smith added.

The assistant coaches for the Sand Devils are Steven Smith, Joe Wright and Leland “Bubba” Billie.

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Photos by Steven Law/Special to the Chronicle
Above: Back row, from left – Team manager Marah Little, Assistant coach Gerrald Begay, Francine Keyonnie, Neve Redhair, Miquedah Taliman, Torrance Begay, Trinity Curley, Nadya Begay, Diana Secody, Arianna Jenkins, Chamique Nez, Keira Jenkins, Calla Smith, Head Coach Ryan Whitehorse, Assistant coach Darlisa Tsinnie. Front row – Jade Reid, Kaydence Tsinigine, Emma Yazzie and Lynzie Tree
Below: From left: Head Coach Justin Smith, Orlandon Yazzie, Joel Beard, Nolan McCormick, Bryce Williams, Aidan Nix, Seth Deering, Chad Wood, Stuart Sandall, Jonah Holiday, Robert Smith, Assistant Coach LeLand Billie, Dahntay Dugi, Assistant coach Joe Wright and Assistant coach Steven Smith.

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