South Mtn, Basha hoops teams are summer state champs

For the past few years, Arizona high school basketball teams have had the opportunity to wrap up their off-season programs by vying for a “summer state championship.”

This year, the Marana High girls basketball team was working on a “Hoosiers” type of story as the girls climbed through the tournament last week, getting all the way to the finals before their dream died at the hands of the much-larger South Mountain High School from Phoenix.

Marana High School, a small 4A team from Tucson, coasted to an easy victory in the opening round of the Arizona Summer State High School Basketball Championships last week in a game against even-smaller Green Fields Country Day, also from Tucson.

Marana doubled the Green Fields score in a 44-22 win over a team pulled together from a student body of approximately 50 kids.  The height of Marana alone is too much for many teams, and it’s mostly centered in 6’4″ Jamee Swan who scored 18 points and pulled down 16 rebounds in that lopsided win.

But Marana, which finished last year with a 17-7 record, found that the road to the finals got tougher when it met Cienega High (Vail) in the second game and struggled to pull out a two-point win, 38-36.  It was a significant victory for the Lady Tigers because Cienega was the only team to beat Marana in region play last year, and the two teams are expected to go head-to-head again when the 2011-12 season opens.

The Jaguars of South Mountain High School in Phoenix put the clamps on Marana’s scoring when the two teams met in the final game, played at ASU’s Wells Fargo Arena, with the Jags taking this year’s girls championship, 37-24.  The champs had destroyed Skyline High School from Mesa in the semi-finals, 43-15.

South Mountain is a large 5A school, while Marana and Cienega played last year in the 4A conference, and Green Fields was a 1A team.

And that’s the beauty of this tournament, put together by the Grand Canyon State Games (GCSG) and the Arizona Basketball Coaches Association.  The boys’ field included 25 teams and there were another dozen girls’ teams – and the schools represented were from all divisions, 1A – 5A.

“We created this tournament three years ago,” explained Alan Lambert, the GCSG basketball commissioner, “hand-in-hand with the (coaches association) to provide a clear summer ending goal for high school teams.”

The small schools from all around the state get a chance to step on the floor with the large schools.  Think “Hoosiers”, a classic true-life movie about high school basketball in Indiana in the ’50s, when a boys’ team from a tiny town called Milan went on an improbable post-season journey to eventually win the 1954 state championship.

It’s a ‘one-and-out’ format, so teams have to win or go home.

Marana didn’t fare quite as well as Milan, but a great sidebar to the story was Swan’s selection as the 2011 Girls Powerade Power Player Award, given to the player that best demonstrates exceptional character and sportsmanship during the tourney.

On the boys’ side, the award was given to Rockne Anderson, the head coach at Vista Grande High School, a 4-A school from Casa Grande that opened with a 58-33 win over Florence HS before getting knocked out by Buena High, 77-39, in the next round.  Buena went on to play Basha High in the regional final and lost that game, 64-39, to the eventual champions.

Basha, behind the play of 6’10” Maurice Kirby, beat the Agua Fria Owls in a thrilling championship game that came down to the wire before the Bears pulled it out, 63-60.

And it was the second straight close call for Basha, as the Bears barely held off Mesa High in the semi-final game, depending on three free throws in the final 20 seconds to pull out the 57-52.  Mesa had the height to counter Kirby, with 6’11” Isaac Allen under the boards, and guard Desmond Medder finding ways to get the ball to him in the paint.

The event is still in its infancy, but according to Lambert, a former college coach, the organizers want to expand the field to 64 teams next year and hold some of the games in Tucson.   The format calls for four regions and this year they were in Phoenix, Tempe, and Casa Grande.

The dates will likely be pretty much the same since the idea is to play the championships after most of the high schools have concluded summer league play.