TUCSON — Fortified with a 15-1 lead midway through the first quarter Saturday night, Scottsdale Saguaro had the inevitable letup that tends to come following a fast start.
Somehow, though, the Sabercats took complacency to the extreme, almost as if it had switched jerseys with host and similar-sounding Tucson Sahuaro following the first quarter of their Division II second round game.
“That's the problem with getting up early, whether it's subconscious or not you tend to let up, and once it gets closer you start tightening up,” Saguaro coach Bob La Rue said following his team's 72-62 loss. “That's why you play to get a higher seed, so you're having this game at home.”
Ninth-seeded Saguaro led the host-Cougars 23-7 after Ryan Berg drilled a three-pointer from the left side with 6:19 left in the second quarter. The Sabercats (19-11) made nine threes in the game, but after sinking four of seven to start they ended up missing 25 of 34 total attempts.
“We just felt like we should stick with it,” said guard Mike Hauser, who had 11 points and accounted for three of the longballs. “We've been shooting so well all year, and our big guys, they play really hard, but they're limited.”
That limitation wasn't exposed on offense, as Saguaro hardly went inside even when the shots stopped falling. Instead, three after three clanged off the rims, allowing No. 8 Sahuaro (22-9) to chip away at what seemed an almost insurmountable deficit based on the way it started the game.
“This was our first state tournament game in six years, and it was pretty clear we were tight,” Sahuaro coach Jim Henry said. “And that hurt our offense. We felt like we needed to win every possession. But once we got more patient things worked out.”
Sahuaro's guards seemed to be addicted to one-on-one driving for most of the first half, even though it had a potent inside presence in Arthur Gibson. Gibson finished with 20 points, but had only seven in the first half thanks to just five touches in the paint.
Once the Cougars started feeding Gibson inside, though, Saguaro's big lead went away quickly. The Sabercats were up 34-23 with 6:37 left in the third quarter when Gibson took over, scoring eight points during a 15-2 run to give Sahuaro its first lead late in the third.
Sahuaro then drove an emotional dagger home when James Molina (team-high 22 points) sank a three at the buzzer despite his momentum taking his body toward the baseline on the last-second shot.
Sahuaro made 6 of 8 three-pointers in the second half, compared to a 4-for-16 clip for Saguaro as the Sabercats' shooters couldn't get as open as they did early on.
“Their coach made a great adjustment, they started switching off every pick,” Mike Hauser said.
La Rue noted things would have been much different had Saguaro been able to play this game in Scottsdale, but he said his team “didn't take care of business” in a few games this season to cause them to miss out on the No. 8 seed (a first-round bye and second-round home game) by fractions of a point.
Even more frustrating for the coach, he said, was how Saturday's loss was so similar to the one the Sabercats suffered at the exact same point in the playoffs last year. Saguaro lost at Tucson Salpointe Catholic in the 8- vs. 9-seed second-round game in 2012 despite leading most of the game.
“I really expected us to play well down here because of what happened last year,” La Rue said. “But this was like a mirror of that game.”
The Sabercats, who were led by Berg's 23 points, let their emotions get out of hand in the final minute when guard Adam Zubkoff was ejected for throwing an elbow. His victim, Sahuaro's Cole Sterns, was also ejected after charging Zubkoff and shoving him away, which prompted Jalen Neal and a team manager to leave the Saguaro bench.