The Nike Tournament of Champions, which has been held in Chandler since 2001, provides the Arizona high school girls’ basketball teams a chance each year to test their progress against other teams from across the country.
As this year’s event wrapped up over the weekend, it’s apparent that progress is still slow – but improving.
Chandler’s Hamilton High School and Marcos de Niza High from Tempe made it to the championship game in their respective brackets before having to settle for runner-up honors.
But the local favorite to bring home a second straight crown, St. Mary’s High School, finished the tournament in the consolation game of the Division E brackets, where they put the better teams from across the country.
Last year, St. Mary’s, a small Catholic school in downtown Phoenix, provided the state with its best finish since Desert Vista won its bracket in 2009, beating New York’s Cicero-North Syracuse in the championship game behind a scoring barrage led by Breanna Stewart‘s 31 points, 26 points from Courtney Ekmark, and 24 from Shipa Tummala. The Knights finished the year ranked No. 1 in the nation.
The year before, they finished in ninth place. There were 18 local teams in 2010; six finished in the top 10 of their divisions, but none higher than fifth place.
This weekend, the Knights, again the No. 1-ranked team in the country according to the USA Today Top 25, had to settle for third place after losing to Mater Dei, 57-54, in the second game and then beating Bishop O’Dowd High School from California, 63-60, in the consolation game.
Mater Dei didn’t seem at all impressed with the fact that St. Mary’s is the defending national champion and had won 49 straight games to that point. Mater Dei stormed to a 17-point lead in the first half and never relinquished the lead – although the Knights trimmed the lead to one point with under two minutes left before falling short at the end.
Ekmark was back again this year but the junior guard, who leads the team in scoring, was unable to put up the kind of points the Knights needed against the California team ranked No. 9 in the nation. The junior guard finished with 16 points, followed by Chantel Osahor, who contributed 14.
As it turned out, the final game for third place became a match-up between No. 1 teams, since Bishop O’Dowd is the top-ranked team in the Xcellent 25 Teams national survey.
Hamilton, which was the state runner-up in Division I last year and lost just one game this season, and Marcos de Niza came a little closer to the prize this year, but this has turned out to be a year without an Arizona champion – which is not uncommon in the TOC.
Marcos, which entered the tournament with a mediocre 8-5 record, beat Santa Margarita, 58-41, in the opening game of Division B and then advanced to the finals with a 50-42 win over Marin Catholic. The Padres lost the title to Horizon Christian Academy in a 71-61 finale. All three opponents were from California.
Marcos was one of four local teams – there were 17 Arizona school entered this year – in their bracket. But Hamilton was the lone representative of the state in Division C. The Huskies opened with a 48-42 win over California’s Piedmont High and then earned their way to the finals with a 20-point win over Reed High before falling to Brea Olinda in the title game, 48-43, to end an eight-game winning streak.
Hamilton dug itself an 11-point hole in the first half, climbed out of it, but couldn’t hold off a late rally by the California team. Kyndall Adams led Hamilton with 15 points and eight boards, while Aliyah Dickson added 13 points.
Pinnacle High School in Phoenix, which sported a 16-0 record coming into the event and was coming off a big win in the Highland Thanksgiving Tournament, won its opener in Division G by beating California’s Salesian High, 70-57, using 27 second-half points by Sydney Wiese for the come-from-behind win. But a 52-46 loss against Windward put them in the consolation game, which they won against Bishop Gorman, 70-46, to earn third place.
Gilbert’s Mesquite High School also wrapped up a third-place finish with a 52-38 win over Marin Catholic in the consolation game. The Wildcats beat Hawthorne, 56-42, in the first game, but lost 78-59 to eventual winner, Horizon Christian Academy.
But a lack of titles year after year continues to reinforce the point that high school girls’ basketball in Arizona is still trying to catch up with the rest of the country.
St. Mary’s is an anomaly of sorts. Its roster has been filled with Division I recruits for several years, and that’s why the Knights haven’t found any competition here as they rolled to an 8-0 record to open this season. Their margin of victory has been at least 26 points a game.
But in the tournament, against teams from other states, they had to fight their way to a third-place finish – and there were no 26-point blow-outs.