The English language hasn’t yet invented a word for those occasions when you perform brilliantly, yet still fall just short of brilliance.
If we ever find that word, it will perfectly describe the lady Sand Devil’s performance against the Valley Christian Trojans last Saturday night during the 3A championship game.
It was a well-paired match-up. The No. 1 seeded Trojans vs. the No. 2 seeded Sand Devils. Both teams entered the championship game with season records of 25-3. Not only were the two teams well-matched on paper but on the court as well.
Natasha Henry, Ariel Austin, Monique Fuller and Kaitlin Benally were part of the Sand Devils championship team two years ago, and Henry and Austin played critical roles in that year’s victory.
Junior center Jacey Salabiye won the tip off, which was controlled by sophomore point guard Myka Taliman who brought the ball down the court, sized up the Trojans’ 2-3 defense and launched one from behind the three-point arc. And it was good.
Salabiye, the Sand Devils post player, added two more points two possessions later giving her team a 5-0 lead.
But Salabiye also picked up two quick fouls, getting hit with her second one in the game’s third minute of play. Sand Devils Head Coach Ryan Whitehorse prudently brought her to the bench and replaced her with senior Monique Fuller.
The Sand Devils sputtered for the next several minutes on both ends of the court, and the Trojans went on a 9-0 scoring run. A three-point shot from Austin broke the Sand Devils cold streak making the score 9-8.
The Trojans added a three-point shot right at the end of the first quarter giving them a 12-8 lead.
The second quarter began with Henry knocking down her only three-pointer of the game, and Salabiye, who had returned to the court, added two more points from her post position. On the next play, junior Lelisa Watson stole the ball, brought it down court and found Salabiye cutting under the basket. Salabiye successfully finished the fast break.
Senior Kaitlin Benally drained a three-pointer on the next possession, which regained the lead for the Sand Devils. Benally hit another three pointer just one play later, but the Trojans offense never quit, matching the Sand Devils basket for basket. The Trojans led 24-21 at halftime.
The score remained close for the first three minutes of the third quarter, but after that the Trojans built a five-point lead which they would retain through the rest of the third quarter.
The Sand Devils mounted a comeback which began in the fourth quarter’s second minute when sophomore point guard Myka Taliman rebounded a missed Trojans’ shot and wove her way through defenders on the transition. At half-court, she avoided a defender by dribbling the ball behind her back, then split two defenders at the foul line and finished the play with a lay up. Taliman’s fine display of athleticism energized the Sand Devils fans and the Gila River Arena crackled with energy.
On the Sand Devils next possession the Trojans fouled Salabiye which was their seventh team foul and sent Salabiye to the free throw line where she added a point.
After a Trojans turnover, Watson banged in a three pointer, which tied the game at 33. On the next play, Watson was fouled and hit one of two free throws, which gave the Sand Devils their first lead since the game’s opening minutes.
The Trojans retook the lead on their next possession and Watson reclaimed it for the Sand Devils knocking in another three pointer.
A defensive stop and two points from Austin gave the Sand Devils a three-point lead with just a minute left.
The Sand Devils made another defensive stop and got the rebound, and the Trojans intentionally fouled Taliman as she was bringing the ball down the court, sending her to the free-throw line where she had the chance to give her team a two-possession lead. But she missed both free throws.
The Trojans’ Bethany Wolph hit a field goal from inside the paint and was fouled in the process. She added another point at the foul line, tying the game at 39.
After the Sand Devils brought the ball past the half-court line, Sand Devils head coach Ryan Whitehorse called a time-out and designed a play with 15 seconds left on the clock. His players executed it perfectly. Moving off a screen, Austin got free of her defender and cut to the basket, where she was passed the ball. She was fouled as she put up the shot, which went wide of the basket. Austin hit her first free throw giving the Sand Devils a one-point lead. Austin missed her second shot, which was rebounded by Valley Christian. Henry fouled Anna Gorman who hit both of her free throws giving the Trojans a 41-40 lead.
Whitehorse called timeout and designed a play to give his team one last shot at the title. The play was designed to put the ball in the hands of Watson, whose nine second-half points helped rally the Sand Devils from their five-point deficit.
The ball made it into her hands but she didn’t get a clean look at the basket. Her shot, which fell wide of the basket, was rebounded by Salabiye who made one last attempt from beneath the basket but her shot was blocked as time expired.
The Sand Devils fell heartbreakingly short of their second title in three years. The final score was Trojans 41, Sand Devils 40.
“I can’t even express how proud I am of these girls,” said Whitehorse. “We were well prepared for this game. They knew how big a game it was and they came ready to play. I was really proud of our defense. This was the lowest score the Trojans have had all season.”
Whitehorse said losing by one point was hard to take.
“Just a few little mistakes made the difference. We missed a few opportunities where we could have closed it out. Our underclassmen are already looking forward to next season. I told our seniors that they’ll have tough situations like this again in the future. It’s part of life.”
The Sand Devils hit 12 of 43 field goals, seven of 24 from the three-point line. They hit nine of 16 free throws.
Watson and Salabiye were the leading scorers for the Sand Devils, with nine points each, followed by Austin with eight and Benally with six. Watson also contributed 11 rebounds, Austin had seven and Salabiye had five.