St. Mary’s HS stakes a claim to No. 1 by winning Nike TOC

How does a girls’ high school basketball team earn the right to be considered the best in the nation?

It involves a lot of factors, but one thing needs to be included in the qualifications.  That team has to win the Joe Smith Division of the prestigious Nike Tournament of Champions that draws the nation’s best teams to Arizona each December.

St. Mary’s High School in Phoenix just added that to their list of arguments for being crowned the mythical national champion at season’s end by beating Riverdale Baptist from Maryland.

Even before the tournament, sponsored by Chandler High School and its school district, the Knights had crafted a No. 2 national ranking from ESPN and were the favorites to win it all going in.

A 66-37 beat-down of perennial power, Christ the King from New York, set the stage for the 4-0 run through the tournament and a shot at the title against No. 3-ranked Riverdale Baptist.  Senior guard Shipa Tummala led the Knights with 30 points.

That was followed by another blow-out, this time against Our Lady of Good Counsel from Maryland, as the Knights pulled away from a seven-point halftime lead to crush Good Counsel in the second half and add a 71-48 victory to its push through the tourney.

A 63-55 win over New York’s Cicero-North Syracruse squad, the No. 24-ranked team, in the semi-finals put the Knights in the championship game.  The No. 1 high school prospect in the nation, Breanna Stewart, poured in 31 points for Cicero-North Syracuse, but it wasn’t enough as St. Mary’s mounted a 20-point lead as the second half opened and held on the rest of the way.

In the final game, St. Mary’s put an exclamation point on an impressive run through a tournament field that included fourteen teams in the Joe Smith Division that are ranked No. 35 or higher, with seven in the top 10.

Tummala, who has committed to play at Harvard, went on another scoring binge, hitting 24 points, but was overshadowed this time by the sophomore guard and coaches’ daughter, Courtney Ekmark, who finished with 26.

As is their way, the Knights grabbed an early lead and built it into a 19-point advantage by the fourth quarter enroute to a 79-69 win in front of a large and vocal crowd in the Hamilton High School gym in Chandler.

The fourth-quarter strategy for Riverdale Baptist involved sending the Knights to the free-throw line as often as needed, which managed to get them as close as nine points.

St. Mary’s went to the free-throw line 37 times in the fourth quarter, and made 22 of them.  Overall, they were at the line an incredible 57 times, where they picked up 38 points.

So the small Catholic school in central Phoenix has accomplished something no other Arizona team has, winning the best girls tournament in the country – and doing it in a year when the field was considered probably the strongest in the 11-year history of the event being held in the Valley.

But it was a long journey to the top.  Most of the roster of eight St. Mary’s varsity players, all of whom will likely be offered D-I scholarships, have been together since they were in middle school and play together as a club team during the summers.

And this isn’t their first rodeo.  St. Mary’s has been playing in the TOC for the past seven years.

This year it all finally came together.