"I think this will be an excellent test for us, they really took it to us last time, and I want to see how we respond." Desert Vista Coach Doug Harris, appox. 3:30pm on Thursday.
Coach, you got your answer.
Desert Vista traveled to Highland last night for a highly anticipated matchup. The PrepAZ preseason #1, Desert Vista has gotten off to a rocky start, as one might expect from a team with young guards and a new coach, but a win at Highland could certainly go a long way to quieting the whispers around DV.
Riley McCormick decided he liked the whispers. Highland's senior guard lit up the Thunder for 11 first half points, and helped get Ryan McCurdy going in the second half, as the Hawks knocked off the Thunder 64-59.
Highland's babyfaced 6'9" senior post Ryan McCurdy had gotten the most press coming into the game, but the Thunder's front line (6'6" Xavier Kilby, 6'5" Travis Gabbidon, and 6'5" Johnny Pinto) held McCurdy to just one first half basket. Kilby was the McCurdy's primary defender, and while the Highland student section chanted "Overrated" Kilby simply proved them wrong, pouring in 17 (including a perfect four of four from the line and hitting his only three point attempt of the game) and carrying his team for long stretches both offensively and defensively. In fact if you didn't know any better you would have assumed Kilby was the player major D1 schools were fighting over. Along with the 19 points, Kilby grabbed 12 rebounds, had three steals and four assists.
Kilby rarely forced shots, instead using excellent footwork in the paint to create space between McCurdy and himself. It appeared Highland began to look at McCurdy as a liability on the defensive end, as he sat for long stretches in each quarter despite finishing the game with only two fouls.
It was a game of runs for three-quarters and a heavyweight battle in the fourth. Highland opened the game with a 13-5 run before Coach Harris called a time out with 3:31 remaining in the first and settled his team down. He also inserted Chris Martinez into the lineup, and Martinez proved immediately why he might be the key to Desert Vista's season. After checking in Martinez came up with a steal, three rebounds, and two assists in a minute and forty-five seconds of game clock before tweaking an ankle and sitting back down at the 1:44 mark. During his stint the Thunder went on a 10-0 run, tying the game. The two teams would finish the first knotted at 15.
During the break it became obvious how important both these teams figure to be come State Tournament time. In the stands Mesa Head Coach Shawn Lynch and three assistants scouted, while Lee Cummard, Matt Komenda, Mike Crowell and several other Mesa players watched. 4A McClintock PG (and recent Utah signee) Jermaine Calvin took in the game in a bright red Utah sweatshirt, and scouts from several colleges watched the talent on display. None were disappointed.
The second frame saw Desert Vista out hustle, out shoot and outplay the Hawks. With McCurdy on the bench for the first four minutes Kilby dominated and DV took the lead and then stretched it to 11 on two Kilby free throws. But DV's shaky guard play (they do not have a single guard with Varsity experience on the roster currently) came into play mid way through the second. For nearly three minutes the Thunder couldn't get into their offense, either turning the ball over trying to break Highland's press or forcing long jumpers. With thirty seconds left in the half Kilby tried to take control, scoring back to back buckets to build DV's lead back to nine, but a 5-2 Highland run closed the first half and at the break the score was Desert Vista 36 Highland 29.
In the first half DV showed a balance often missing from their offense. While Kilby and Gabbidon lead in scoring, key buckets from PG Josh Jolin, Pinto (who finished with 12) and Martinez took the pressure off of DVs stars to carry the load. On the other side McCormick was ferocious. With McCurdy being out muscled and outplayed the senior guard repeatedly took the ball to the basket, drawing fouls, draining drives, or kicking out to teammates who were knocking down the three. In fact Highland shot over 50% from three, led by Nate Otis (who finished with 12 and went 3 for 4 from beyond the arc).
Desert Vista came out in the second half looking for someone to hit an outside shot. Highland's defense was no longer going to let Kilby run rampant inside and were collapsing had on the senior. They seemed to get their wish when Chris Grey hit an open three to start the second, but when Pinto picked up his fourth foul with 4:53 left in the third period one could sense a tide change. McCurdy came out in the second half calling for the ball, and though Kilby's defense was solid, you can only hold a player of McCurdy's talent and size down for so long. His baseline drive and dunk with 3:15 left in the third brought the crowd to life and his teammates as well. More importantly it ended an 11-1 DV run and kept the Hawks from falling to another double-digit deficit.
Though Desert Vista's front-line is imposing, Highland's guards were able to consistently get into the lane, and the added pressure on the DV bangers began to show when Kilby picked up his third and fourth fouls in the last two minutes of the third. His fourth, a touch foul that could have been attributed to any one of three DV players, came with just nine tenths of a second left in the 3rd quarter. After two free throws the Hawks had closed the deficit to three, 51-48.
Kilby and Pinto both started the fourth on the bench, leaving Gabbidon to carry the load. On their second possession of the fourth Gabbidon had the ball knocked away by McCormick. Both players hit the floor diving for the ball. The whistle blew and as Gabbidon tried to get up his elbow hit McCormick in the temple. While Gabbidon protested that he was simply trying to get to his feet the officials saw it differently, calling a technical foul. After draining both free throws Highland had tied the game for the first time since early in the second period.
McCurdy was noticeably absent through the first two minutes of the fourth period, but when he reentered with 5:53 left he was playing with a fire and intensity he had yet to display in this contest. After two quick McCurdy buckets Harris was forced to bring Kilby back with 4:25 left. Highland called a clearout for McCurdy, and maybe the best defensive play of this young season would occur.
As Kilby came out to guard McCurdy on the left wing, he literally put both his hands behind his back. McCurdy lowered his head and drove right, but Kilby's feet were to quick. He beat McCurdy to the spot, drawing the offensive foul. As Kilby hit the floor his hands were still behind his back.
It was a great play, and seemed to momentarily reenergize the Thunder. Highland called a time out with 3:21 left down by two. Harris reinserted Pinto for the stretch run and neither team would disappoint down the stretch. Highland's press snaked another steal and another easy bucket (Highland would get ten points from their press and 22 off turnovers for the game) to tie the game at 53. After DV hit one of two at the line it would be DV's turn to up the defensive pressure and a Gabbidon steal would give DV a one-point advantage.
Next time down the court though McCurdy got fantastic inside position and Kilby, being careful with his four fouls, had to clear the way for another thundering dunk to make it 55-54 Highland.
Next it was Gabbidon's turn to show off the quick feet. After Grey missed an open three Highland came down with 1:45 left and looked perfectly content to hold the ball for a last shot, but Gabbidon's pressure on McCormick at half court drew an offensive foul, McCormick's fifth, and gave DV the ball and a chance for the lead. Gabbidon drove and drew a foul, but missed the front end of a one and one.
Highland looked to stall, but DV's pressure was again intense. McCurdy made the mistake of putting the ball on the floor, and had it tipped away by Kilby. McCurdy dove, Kilby dove, no one appeared to have possession, but the officials gave Highland's bench a time out with 51.5 seconds left. Pinto finished his night after picking up his 5th foul reaching in on Otis, who calmly buried both free throws with just under fifty seconds to play.
Grey drove the lane and dropped a two point bucket to make is 60-59 Highland, but on the inbound play Kilby went for the steal, bumped the Highland player, and picked up his 5th foul. Martinez checked back into the game and Shane Peterson hit both his free throws to make it 62-59 with just over half a minute to play. Gabbidon drove and dished to Dutch Perryman in the corner, but the young guard hadn't been on the court for more than four minutes the entire game, and his three ball rimmed out. Highland would add a garbage bucket and get the win, 64-59.
It was a great win for Highland, currently #1 in the PrepAZ.com poll, but also a game to rally around for Desert Vista. "The book on us is to press, and we have to work on being more careful with the ball" Harris said, "but this was a great, exciting game."
For Highland, it solidifies their status as #1, and with Chandler across town spanking Salpointe on the same night it looks like those two teams have separated themselves a bit from the rest of the 5A pack. But it was an excellent game for Desert Vista also. While the Thunder absolutely must find some better guard play, and their offensive sets are still sloppy at best, this team, with a reputation for one on one basketball, played like a team Thursday night. Kilby and Gabbidon may be the stars, but both have seemed to realize in order to win they'll need the help of players like Pinto and Martinez.
Highland will remain #1, but don't be surprised to see DV actually move up in the polls after this "good" loss.