An expanded Nike Tournament of Champions rolled through the Valley just before Christmas, giving local high school girls’ basketball programs a chance to test their game against some of the best teams in the nation.
The field of teams that assembled in the East Valley for the 22nd annual TOC increased significantly over last year. And the number of participating local teams nearly doubled, from 12 in 2017 to 22 this year.
That meant the odds that there would be more in-state winners increased, which did happen. Arizona schools posted a combined 19-29 record last year, and increased the wins to 37 this year against 51 losses. The more accurate comparison shows the winning percentage improved from 66 percent to 72 percent.
But winning their share of bracket titles continues to elude the local hoops programs.
The expanded field this year is perhaps a sign of an improved economy as more teams were willing to spend on the entry and travel costs. This year’s field included 104 teams from 22 states, up from 80 entries last year.
That’s an encouraging sign for event organizers who have been faced with falling attendance in recent years. In 2014 there were 22 local teams entered, but that number dropped to just 14 the next couple of years, and then fell even further to an even dozen last year.
Established in 1997, the event claims to have hosted more than 40,000 athletes from all 50 states, and the winner of its top bracket is generally considered the de facto national champion. The 2018 edition included a majority of the nation’s top 25-ranked teams.
This year’s jump in participating teams meant increasing the number of brackets from five to seven, with all brackets except one showcasing 16 teams. The Kirk Pointer bracket was filled with just eight teams, and that was where Arizona had the most success.
Scottsdale’s Desert Mountain High School won the Pointer, rolling undefeated through four games and winning the title by beating St. Paul High School from California in a 50-48 nail-biter. The only other teams that came close to bringing home a championship trophy were Pinnacle High School in Phoenix and Gilbert’s Highland High.
Pinnacle, which was playing in the Derrill Kipp bracket, won its first three games before losing to William Penn High School from Pennsylvania, 50-42, in the title game. Highland, which also finished 3-1, claimed third place.
Desert Mountain was the only local squad to go through the tourney without a loss. Four AZ teams went 3-1, with Gilbert High and Scottsdale’s Chaparral High rounding out the group. Those five were the only Arizona schools to come away with winning records.
Gilbert and Chaparral both earned fifth-place finishes, with Gilbert playing in the John Anderson bracket and Chaparral in the Kipp.
Queen Creek High School (2-2) also finished in fifth in its bracket, the Pointer, and Desert Ridge High School (1-3) played for 7th place in that same bracket, but lost to Idaho’s Genesis Prep.
Goodyear’s Millennium High School was the only Arizona team selected to play in the tournament’s 16-team elite bracket, the Clare Droesch, which included five of the nation’s top 25 teams. The Tigers, who entered the event with a 10-1 record, posted a disappointing 1-3 mark to finish in 15th place.
In all, there were 13 Arizona teams that won just one game over four days of play.