Nike TOC showed AZ girls’ hoops teams still struggling



Arizona has been hosting the Nike Tournament of Champions for girls’ basketball since 2001 when Chandler High School and the Chandler School District took on the responsibility of organizing the four-day national tournament.

Since it moved to Arizona 16 years ago, the event has evolved into one of the premier high school tournaments and annually draws some of the best prep teams from around the country.

It was hoped that it would also give local teams a chance to compete against the nation’s best without having to leave their own state.  As a result, there was always an abundance of Arizona schools entered in a field which has grown to 80-90 teams each year.

Unfortunately, the tournament continues to show that Arizona is still trying to play catch-up to many of the top programs outside its borders.

The TOC, which just completed its 21st year, rolled through the Valley last week and a dozen local teams jumped on board to once again be tested against top-caliber competition.  They were scattered among the 80 teams competing in five brackets.

And once again, with just a few exceptions, Arizona’s best had a tough time competing.

Each team played four games over four days, with the final on Friday to give all the players and their parents time to get back home to prepare for Christmas just a few days away.  Collectively, the 12 local teams posted a 19-29 record.  Only two teams, Gilbert High School (4-0) and Scottsdale’s Desert Mountain High School (3-1) had winning records.  Half of the local entrants won just one game.

Those kind of results may help explain why local participation in the tournament has fallen off in the last couple of years.  There were 22 in-state schools entered in 2014, but that number dropped to 14 the next two years, and fell even further this season.

Only once has an Arizona school won the title in the tourney’s top bracket, the Joe Smith.  That was back in 2011 when St. Mary’s High School, the No. 2 team in the nation that year, rolled undefeated through the Smith bracket, which then included seven teams that were ranked in the nation’s top 10.

The next year St. Mary’s had to settle for third in the top bracket and no Arizona team brought home a title in any of the other four brackets.  Since then, Arizona has usually been able to claim a lower-bracket title, sometimes more than one in a single year, but no more Joe Smith titles.

Last year, Seton Catholic had a good shot at winning the top bracket, but had to settle for sixth place.  Mesquite High won the John Anderson bracket and Chaparral High took the Derril Kipp title — one of the better outcomes in recent years.

But this year, the Smith bracket was dominated by out-of-state teams and Arizona’s best finish came in the Mike Desper bracket that was won by Gilbert. Only two local teams, Mesquite and Millennium High, were invited to play in the top bracket and each won just one game.  Mesquite advanced the farthest, playing for seventh place but losing that final game to Nevada’s Centennial High.

Gilbert (15-2) was one of three local teams playing in the Desper.  The Tigers rolled through the bracket undefeated, beating two teams from California and one each from New York and Colorado.  Hamilton High and Perry High, the other local teams in that bracket, both lost their first two games.  Hamilton won its last two games for a 13th place finish and Perry finished 1-3, losing its fourth game to West Seattle that would have given the Pumas a 15th place finish.

For 31 minutes and 55 seconds, it looked like Gilbert wouldn’t make it into the finals.  The Tigers trailed throughout the entire semifinal game against Sacred Heart Cathedral from California until Hanna Cavinder made a couple of free throws with five seconds left on the game clock to pull Gilbert through to a 56-55 victory and a chance to play California’s West Clovis for the title.

But it was twin sister, Haley Cavinder, who carried the offensive load against Sacred Heart, and then against West Clovis for the 70-62 win that would nail down the title for the Tigers.  Haley scored 20 points in the second half of the semi following a dismal team shooting effort (6-for-30) in the first half that had the Tigers in a deep hole.  She finished with a game-high 26 points to fuel the comeback and then posted a triple double in the championship game, scoring 25 points and contributing 13 boards and 11 assists.

Hanna, who averages 20 points a game, right behind her sister’s 22.6, chipped in 10 points in each of the final two games.

And Brynn Wade, the team’s third-highest scorer with 9.2 points per outing, took her game up a notch for the final.  The junior post dropped in 11 points and 21 rebounds, which is well above her season average 13 boards a game.