The Corona del Sol High School boys’ basketball team wasn’t invincible this year. But at times, the Aztecs looked like it – like the night they hung 106 points on Perry High as February began.
Over the course of the regular season, only four in-state teams have been able to hold the scoring margin to single digits as Corona ran up a 33-1 overall record. Shadow Mountain High School and Central High each did it twice (Central’s second time was during the playoffs) and Pinnacle High and Gilbert High also accomplished the feat. Seventeen Corona wins were by 20 or more points.
So there was little question that the Aztecs would be favored to repeat again as state champions. When the team added a 6’10” freshman named Marvin Bagley III to a roster already loaded with college-scholarship talent, a spot in this year’s state title game seemed all but a certainty. Bagley is already considered by many recruiting services to be the No. 1 college prospect in the Class of 2018.
Yesterday, the Aztecs lived up to all those expectations by winning a fourth straight Division I state championship by defeating Desert Vista High School, 57-32, becoming just the third team in Arizona prep history to reach that pinnacle, and the first in the last 54 years. Phoenix Union High School strung together four from 1958 to 1961 and Mesa High did it from 1923-26.
In Saturday’s semifinal game, fifth-seeded Chaparral High School made the Aztecs work for the right to get a shot at owning a piece of history. The Firebirds held a five-point lead after the first period and went into halftime tied at 34. But Corona took control in the third quarter and were able to keep Chaparral at arm’s length the rest of the way for the 79-70 win.
But Corona wasted no time in putting the title on ice last night, essentially wrapping up the win by halftime when they went into the locker room with a 31-13 lead. They used a devastating fast-break transition game to run up points, and a suffocating defense that denied the Desert Vista shooters from just about any spot on the floor, from the three-point arc to the low block.
It didn’t take a savvy hoops fan to know this game was over early after the switch was made to a running clock for the fourth quarter, which is mandated when one team gets 30 points ahead. Corona closed out the third quarter with a 53-21 lead.
By the time Corona head coach Sam Duane Jr. cleared his bench to give his reserves a chance to say they played in a history-making game, the Aztec fans were beginning to celebrate while the shocked Desert Vista fans sat in disbelief. Rarely has a state championship game at this level gone so incredibly awry.
A good indication of just how effective the Corona defense was can be see in the stats, which showed that Desert Vista’s top point-producer was senior Quincy Taylor, who put up 10 points. Brandon Clarke, the Thunder’s leading scorer at 17 points a game, was held to six points.
Corona was led by 6’7″ senior Dane Kuiper, who scored 17 points and dished out six assists, while also collecting 10 rebounds. Bagley finished with 16 points and 14 rebounds, while blocking five shots in his role as defensive intimidator. And Alex Barcello added 12 points and three assists.
Corona, which shot a sizzling 53 percent from the field, also doubled the number of rebounds pulled down by the Thunder (20-10).
The only loss of the season for Corona was a one-point defeat during the Hoophall West tournament that came at the hands of Sierra Canyon, one of the top teams in California. So the Aztecs’ 70-game winning streak against in-state schools remains intact.
And next year’s team will begin a new season with the momentum that comes from being challenged to continue to extend that streak – and the confidence that comes with yet another state title.
Add to that the return of a 6’10” phenom who will be a year older, with a season of high school ball under his belt.
Which should make the Aztecs a pre-season favorite once again.