AZ girls hoops teams still struggling at nat’l Nike tourney

The best girls high school basketball teams were back in town this past week, giving Arizona schools an opportunity to see where they stand on the national landscape.

Results again this year were mixed.

St. Mary’s High School in Phoenix took its No. 16 national ranking (USA Today) and welcomed the chance to play with the big dogs in the top division of the Nike Tournament of Champions event, which is hosted by the Chandler school district and has been played in the Valley for the past 10 years.

The Joe Smith Elite division featured competition among seven of the top 25 teams in the country, including No. 1 Mater Dei HS and No. 2 Brea Olinda HS, both California schools.

Brea Olinda went on to win out in the top bracket, beating No. 9 Long Beach Poly, 56-48, in Wednesday’s final at Hamilton High School in Chandler.  Mater Dei, which has four D-I commitments in its starting line-up, finished in third place.

St. Mary’s, last year’s state title runner-up in 5A-I, stubbed its toe right out of the chute, losing its opener to Monarch High School, 64-53, and then ended up earning a ninth-place finish by beating Christ the King High School, 71-66, in the final game.

But the Lady Knights have a young team this year and can be expected to make another run at the Joe Smith competition next year.

Last year, Arizona had at least one champion, as Desert Vista HS in Phoenix went undefeated through its bracket to win the title with a 65-55 victory over Campolindo High School from California.

This year, the Thunder dropped its opener, 72-54, in the Blue division to The Bishop’s HS, and then lost out on an 11th-place finish when it was beaten by Long Beach Jordan, 66-41.

But overall, there was some improvement in the results of those games played by Arizona high schools.  There were 18 local teams in the field of 87 from across the country, a couple more than last year.

While just four were able to win their opening games last year and move into the winner’s bracket for the four-day event, there were seven that made it past that first hurdle this time around.

The result was that six Arizona teams, including St. Mary’s, finished in the Top 10 of their divisions, with most of the success coming in the White division and the Desper division.

Chaparral HS in Scottsdale picked up a fifth-place finish and McClintock HS in Tempe added a seventh-place in the Desper division. Mountain View HS in Mesa had to beat local rival Hamilton HS in Chandler, 47-37, to finish fifth in the White division; seventh-place went to Pinnacle HS in Phoenix.

In the Blue division, Flagstaff HS put a convincing 32-point beating on ThunderRidge HS, 64-32, for fifth place in that bracket.

This is the first of two sessions for the prestigious Nike event, with the other held right after Christmas.  It has drawn more than 100 state champions since 1997 and has featured 11 of the past 14 USA Today national champions.

The TOC is considered the top tournament of the season and a chance for schools across the country to see how their game matches up on the national stage.

It’s safe to say that Arizona isn’t quite ready for prime time yet.

But the gap appears to be narrowing.