Nike TOC still a bar too high for AZ girls’ basketball teams

I was raised in Arizona but moved to Michigan to raise a family.  During that time I began coaching high school girls basketball.

When I returned to the desert some 20 years ago, I was curious to see how girls hoops here stacked up against the Midwest programs, so I took in  a few games.

It was obvious that Arizona was still trying to catch up in the girls game.

Now, a couple of decades later, the struggle continues.  The annual Nike Tournament of Champions continues to illustrate the disparity that exists between Arizona and other parts of the country.

Last weekend the Nike TOC rolled into the Valley, spread over five high school gyms in Tempe and Phoenix.   The  field included 96 participating teams, including a majority of the top 25 ranked teams in the nation, representing 22 states and Canada.  The TOC is the premier event of the season that offers a format for determining a de facto national champion in high school girls basketball.

Thirty-six Arizona schools entered teams this year, spread over six divisions.  None brought home a division championship.

This state’s best showing came from Valley Vista High School.  The Monsoon, a 6A team from Surprise in the West Valley, was put in the Joe Smith Division, which included 16 teams from nine states and Canada, all considered the best of the entries.

Valley Vista, the only Arizona team selected for that bracket, has won four state titles in the last five years and is generally considered to be the best the state has to offer this season.  The Monsoon beat teams from Maryland and Florida before losing to Etiwanda HS from California, which went on to win the tournament.  The match-up for third place found the Monsoon dropping a well-contested game, 61-51, to Bishop McNamara HS from Maryland to settle in at fourth place.

There were other top-10 finishes by Arizona schools.  Seton Catholic and Sunrise Mountain HS both came away with runner-up finishes, Seton in the Dan Wiley Division and Sunrise in the Derril Kipp bracket.

Seton lost to Bishop O’Dowd by 10 in the title game (44-34), but Sunrise Mountain came within one point from a championship, losing to California’s Caruthers HS, 53-52.   The Wiley had six AZ teams entered, the Kipp had seven locals.

In the Marcia Pinder Division, which had the most AZ teams with eight, Westwood HS beat Huntington Beach HS (CA), 61-39, for third place.  And Corona del Sol HS put up the most lopsided score of the tourney by beating fellow Arizona school and Tempe neighbor, Marcos de Niza, 51-16.

Desert Vista HS took home the other third-place finish, playing in the Mike Desper Division, squeezing out a 40-36 win over Konawaena HS from Hawaii.  Hamilton High finished eighth in that bracket.

There was also a separate bracket for those basketball “academies” that do not have membership in the Arizona Interscholastic Association and therefore don’t compete against in-state high schools.  Four Arizona teams were entered in the Clare Droesch Division, with AZ Elite Prep finishing with a championship and PHH Prep coming in third.

Local participation in the tournament, begun in 1997 and played each year just before Christmas, has been increasing in recent years.  In 2017 there were only 12 Arizona teams that entered, but that improved to 22 the following year and 29 in 2019.

This year’s total of 36 local entries may be the result of pent-up interest since the 2020 event was cancelled due to the pandemic.

However, the increased number of local entries didn’t prove to be much of an advantage again this year.  But the Nike tourney is welcomed each season because it continues to provide a measuring stick to help determine how the Arizona schools match up to the national competition.

Unfortunately, this year’s event shows that schools here in the desert are still playing catch-up.