Call it the luck of the draw. Or, in the case of the Hamilton High School girls’ basketball team, the lack of luck.
Hamilton has been playing in the Nike Tournament of Champions for years and finally got placed in the Joe Smith Division, the bracket where the country’s top teams compete.
So who do they draw for their first game but Blackman High School from Tennessee, last year’s national champion and the team that began 2014 play as the pre-season No. 1? Needless to say, Blackman, currently ranked No. 3 in the country, has to be considered the favorite in this year’s Nike TOC, the 18th edition of this prestigious national tournament that has been hosted the last 14 years by the Chandler school district.
Many of the best girls’ basketball teams in the country have descended on the Valley this weekend, with games spread around among gyms at Hamilton High in Chandler, Perry High and Mesquite High in Gilbert, and Kroc Center in Phoenix. It takes that many venues to accommodate the field of 85 teams that will compete in four days of competition that concludes Monday (no play on Sunday).
The event kicked off yesterday, with three of the 22 Arizona teams playing in the tourney’s premier division.
Hamilton put up 44 points against Blackman, but it wasn’t enough for the win as the defending national champs advanced into the winner’s side of the bracket with a 57-44 victory. Teams play one game a day, so the Huskies will try to rebound against Dillard High School of Florida, which lost to Desert Vista High (Phoenix), one of the other Arizona teams in the Smith bracket.
Desert Vista’s 68-58 win over Dillard sets up a winner’s bracket game with Blackman this morning. The third local entry in the Smith is Goodyear’s Millennium High School, which also entered the winner’s side of the bracket with a 58-49 win over Riverside Baptist High School, a team from Maryland that began the season ranked among the MaxPreps Top 25 teams.
Hamilton’s loss to Blackman was its first this season, so it can definitely be argued that they belong in the top division. The Huskies also have the size in 6’3″ senior Zayn Dornstauder and 6’3″ sophomore Maya Banks to play with the top teams. Hamilton is coming off five straight seasons of 20+ wins, made it to last year’s state semifinals, and is averaging 57 points a game this season.
Desert Vista posted a 30-2 record and won the Division I state championship last season and has a couple of college D-I commits on its roster, senior guard/forward Sabrina Haines (Arizona State) and 6’4″ senior center Kristine Anigwe (California).
But Millennium, which didn’t begin participating in the Nike TOC until a few years ago, may be making the loudest statement after just one game. The team they beat, Riverdale Baptist, was the No. 1-ranked team in the country a couple of weeks ago. Millennium posted a 27-4 record last season, is 11-0 so far this year, and is averaging almost 68 points a game.
Getting past Blackman is going to be a challenge for any team hoping to win in the tournament’s elite division. But Arizona still has a good shot at it with two teams advancing and already showing they can play with the nation’s top prep programs.
This state’s stock in girls’ high-school basketball has risen in recent years, with St. Mary’s High School actually winning the TOC – and a national title – just a few years ago. This year appears to be one of the best chances to pick up where St. Mary’s left off.