All season, Seton Catholic coach Hosea Graham has preached that defense wins championships.
Graham was proven correct Saturday.
Unfortunately for the Sentinels, it was Rio Rico that provided the evidence. Playing a highly intensive zone, Rio Rico pulled off a gigantic upset, defeating the Sentinels 63-56 in the 3A boys state championship at America West Arena.
"Defense wins championships," said Rio Rico coach John Fanning, sounding like Graham. "We pressured them the whole game. They (Rio Rico players) knew they could win and they did."
How big of an upset was this? Consider that just 15 days ago, Seton (29-5) beat Rio Rico 58-28 in the South Region tournament championship.
"We just weren’t talking that much. Our intensity wasn’t where it usually is," said Sentinel Matt Tibbetts. "We weren’t moving like we usually do. It showed that they wanted it."
Graham attributed his team’s lack of movement to Rio Rico’s defense.
"They went into a 1-3-1 spread zone and they were very, very patient," Graham said. "We’ve faced zones before. We didn’t want to force it from the outside and that zone created a certain pace, which we’re really not comfortable running at such a slow pace. It was a great plan.
"It’s hard to get intensity when you’re being played in a zone. You move the ball and you get impatient. They’re high school kids. If you hold the ball longer than 20 seconds, that’s a long time. I felt we could have gotten better shots."
Rio Rico, led by Omar Lopez’s 29 points, appeared to have the game won midway through the third quarter when it led 40-30. But the Sentinels closed the quarter on a 10-0 run, making it 40-all heading into the final quarter.
The lead changed hands four times in the fourth, the last time with 4:45 left on a basket by Art Pou to put Rio Rico up 48-47. Seton trailed the rest of the way.
"We realized how much we wanted it," Tibbetts said. "We didn’t think anyone could stop us, and we kind of fell apart. Defense was the main thing. It was all about our defense. We didn’t have any intensity."
Drew Arnold, who at 6-foot-9 towered over everyone on Rio Rico, led the Sentinels with 20 points.
Graham said the loss didn’t hurt as much as the Sentinels’ double-overtime loss to Globe in the state semifinals two years ago.
"Two years ago was much more painful," said Graham, "because I really felt we were going to do it. This year, I got so much more out of it than wins and losses because of the relationship with the guys."
WINSLOW 76, KAYENTA MONUMENT VALLEY 69: Levyna Ben scored 28 points, including a state championship game-record six 3-pointers, to lead Winslow to the 3A state title.
Lindsey Begay added 19 points for Winslow (29-2) for the Bulldogs’ first state title since 1998.
Tempress Freeman had 19 points and Samantha Harrison 17 for Monument Valley (29-5).