TUCSON — Gilbert Christian boys basketball coach Jerome Joseph wasn't a big fan of having to spend several nights in Tucson last February, though any dissent was ignored in the midst of the Knights' state championship season.
Fast forward to this past week, when Gilbert Christian once again found itself forced to visit Tucson for the Division III, Section II tournament. Joseph still wasn't pleased with having to take the trip, but considering the results, he was willing to grin and bear it.
“I'm just not a fan of the travel,” Joseph said following a 76-47 blowout victory over Florence to claim the sectional title at Cholla High School. “I love to play games, but I hate that we had to come to Tucson, to take three two-hour bus trips in four nights.”
The Knights (26-3) didn't play like a team weary from too many long drives, turning an early 7-7 tie into a runaway win against a good Florence team that just couldn't keep up with all of Gilbert Christian's weapons.
Most notably, the Gophers (27-6) couldn't contend with junior Sam Jones and his inside-outside game. Jones led all scorers with 21 points, including five of the Knights' nine threes. But beyond that, it always seemed like Gilbert Christian had a man open, even when Joseph could be heard yelling 'back door to Keaton!' over and over — just before Keaton Ranger got open for an easy back-door layup as part of a 27-11 first quarter.
“We played well, we shared the ball well,” Joseph said. “Right now it's about playing out best basketball, when you're heading into the state tournament.”
Joseph did have one criticism: he felt his team was a little lackadaisical on defense. The final score wouldn't indicate this, but Florence did have a handful of flashes of strong offensive execution, highlighted by junior Gavin Wood's 15 points and the shifty footwork of senior point guard Rasheek Bowman.
But after getting the lead down to 11 points, at 42-31 early in the third quarter, the Gophers couldn't keep Gilbert Christian from running and gunning to its second straight sectional title.
Gilbert Christian is likely to enter the Division III state tournament as the No. 2 seed, behind Fort Defiance Window Rock. Joseph feels his team is battled-tested after a regular season facing many larger Phoenix-area schools, though it was helpful to get to see sectional opponents like Florence, Benson, Thatcher and Rio Rico that the Knights could see again at state.
“It's different competition than we've never seen,” said senior Dylan Bliss, who had 11 points. “These games prepare us for the state championship.”
As far as the travel goes, Bliss pointed out the Knights won't play anywhere near their home court again this season, as they will have a first-round bye and then would play games in Flagstaff, Prescott and possibly Glendale along the state tourney route.
“We've got to get used to (the travel) eventually,” Bliss said.