It didn’t take Neil MacDonald long to find out what life will be like for his boys’ basketball team without Marvin Bagley III… about 32 minutes to be exact, or the length of one high school game.
Corona del Sol High School, the top-ranked team in Division I, was able to string together 70 consecutive wins without being beaten by another Arizona team. But that all ended Tuesday night when No. 6 Mesa High School took an early lead and then held the Aztecs at arm’s length the rest of the way, right down to the final shot, for a stunning 65-62 victory on Mesa’s home court.
It was the first game on Corona’s schedule. And the first game with MacDonald on the bench as head coach.
A really tough way to begin a new era.
And that’s what this season was going to be after Bagley, the No. 1 high school recruit in the Class of 2018, decided to leave the program after leading the Aztecs to last year’s Division I state championship as a freshman.
Corona posted a 33-1 record last season – the only loss coming at the hands of one of California’s top teams and by just one point – and won the Division I state championship game in dominating fashion to become just the third team in Arizona prep history to win four straight titles, and the first in the last 54 years.
Bagley had 16 points, 14 rebounds, and five blocked shots in the last title game against Desert Vista High School, which was essentially over before halftime when the Aztecs had already mounted a 31-13 lead. The 6’10” center that plays the game with the agility of a guard finished his freshman season with a double-double average for the year: 19.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game.
Cornona lost two of the best players in the state to graduation, 6’7″ wing Dane Kuiper and 6’5″ forward Cassius Peat, but with Bagley returning, the Aztecs were the hands-down favorite to make it five in a row. But on August 17 he announced on twitter that he would be leaving the program to transfer to Hillcrest Academy, a new school in the Valley patterned after the well-known national prep football factory in Nevada, Findlay Prep.
His father joined the coaching staff at Hillcrest and his younger brother also enrolled in the school. But that decision turned sour when the family found out the basketball program at Hillcrest wasn’t going to be able to earn a national ranking because it wasn’t part of a state association. The national exposure is what had lured Bagley to the new program.
Before the season got into its second week, Bagley was gone. So both Hillcrest and Corona will have to learn to win without him this year.
MacDonald, who was on the bench as an assistant to Sam Duane Jr. (who attended the game) for the past two years, is sticking with most of the offensive and defensive schemes that helped the Aztecs to four state titles. But it’s obviously not going to be the same without the big man on the floor.
The Aztecs are trying to get it done with a version of ‘small ball’ that is using a three-guard system. This trio features players who will go on to play D-I college ball – senior Tyrell Henderson and juniors Alex Barcello and Saben Lee, who played a reserve role last year – so it’s not like MacDonald doesn’t have plenty to work with.
Barcello was named the Gatorade Arizona Player of the Year last season, when he led the team in assists and was second in scoring, behind Bagley.
The 6’2″ point guard scored 25 points in the loss to Mesa and he was the one who took the final shot at the buzzer, a failed three-point attempt that would have sent the game into overtime.
As the adjustment to small ball begins to develop, Corona will rely even more on the transition game they’ve used successfully in the past. But Mesa took that weapon away, using a man defense that forced the Aztecs to play more of a half-court game.
Mesa’s 6’4″ senior guard, Drew Hatch, led the Jackrabbits’ offense with 31 points. But it was Mesa’s success at the free throw line that enabled Corona to hold on to their first-half lead. Mesa (5-1) canned 13 of their 14 charity shots in the second half and made its final nine points at the line.
It was another Mesa school that was the last Arizona team to beat the Aztecs. Dobson High accomplished that with a 62-54 win as the 2013 season wound down to a close.
But this win by Mesa High is the one that will be remembered with a notation in the record books.