There is little doubt that a major reason Gilbert High School's boys basketball team enters the postseason as the top-ranked team in 5A is because of its defense.
Thursday night, the Tigers put that defense on display as it hosted the Fiesta Region semifinals.
In their 52-49 win over Mesquite, the top-seeded Tigers shot just 2-for-12 from the field in the third quarter and actually increased their lead. Of course, the visiting Wildcats, the No. 4 seed, didn't do themselves any favors. "Sometimes the shots just don't go down," said Mesquite coach Sam Duane, whose team made only 1 of 12 field goal attempts in the third frame. "We had putbacks, layins, open shots; but couldn't get any to drop. And they are a very good defensive team."
The win assures the Tigers a spot in next week's state tournament. Gilbert, which swept Mesquite in a pair of regular season matchups, will face third-seeded Highland in Saturday's regional championship.
Mesquite will face Hamilton on Saturday with the winner advancing to the state tournament. "This was the pressure game," Gilbert coach Tom Bennett said. "This takes the pressure off of Saturday. At least we know we are in."
Gilbert and Mesquite were as cold from the field in the third quarter as the Valley was wet Thursday. The teams combined to miss their first 12 field goals of the second half and shot 3-for-24 overall.
Despite the scoring drought, Gilbert, thanks to four free throws, managed to increase its lead to 36-25 entering the fourth quarter.
"I thought we did okay," Bennett said when discussing his team's defense. "They are big. Big has hurt us this year. And we hard trouble with (Jerry) Bryant."
No kidding. Bryant scored a game-high 24 points, including 18 in the second half. After the Tigers built a 12-point fourth quarter lead, Bryant led the Wildcats' rally with 14 in the final frame.
Mesquite trailed 49-43 with one minute, 10 seconds remaining and then missed a pair of free throws. The Wildcats again got to within 50-46 with 13 seconds left after a Bryant 3-pointer, but Gilbert senior Ryan Toolson put the game out of reach with a pair of free throws.
Toolson led the Tigers with 19 points. He and Bryant were the only players in double figures.
"We made more mental mistakes," said Toolson of Gilbert's second-half performance. "We missed some free throws, but winning this one was important. Our defense was right there all game." Gilbert missed four consecutive attempts from the line in the fourth quarter to aid Mesquite's comeback. Toolson scored 11 of his points in the first half, including a deep 3-pointer.
Senior Mike Grothaus, who had to shake off a bloody nose, scored nine points for Gilbert and senior Tommy Hambicki added seven points and nine assists. Mesquite seniors Tyler McGinn and John Smallwood each finished with nine points.
"We need to keep playing hard and get some shots to fall," Duane said about Saturday's matchup with Hamilton. "When we rebound well that's when we win." Mesquite won the board battle on Thursday, 30-24. But the Wildcats shot just 19 for 53 from the field.
Highland was able to handle Hamilton's pressure defense en route to the 63-52 upset victory at Gilbert High School.
The Hawks, seeded third, notched their first victory of the season over the Huskies in four tries and earned a spot in next week's state tournament.
Hamilton, the region's No. 2 seed, will have to defeat Mesquite on Saturday to advance.
"For the most part we did a good job against their defense and got shots," said Highland coach John Burns. "We've played well against them but could never get the win."
Highland used a 13-0 run during a four-minute stretch of the fourth quarter to secure the win.
Hamilton erased an 11-point third quarter deficit and took a 46-44 lead with 5:43 to play on a pair of Anthony Huff free throws. But then the Huskies' fortunes turned around and they went scoreless during the next four minutes.
During that span, leading scorers Lerin Wells and Drew Thorson fouled out and Brian Schaffer drew a pair of technical fouls to get ejected.
"We had some guys come off the bench and give us quality minutes," Burns said. "When Wells went out we knew that hurt their outside shooting."
Wells finished with 14 points and Thorson added 10. Riley McCormick led all
scorers with 19 points for Highland. He scored eight points in the third quarter and managed to stay in the game despite drawing his fourth foul early in the fourth.
Danny Hardy scored 15 for Highland, including eight in the fourth. Ryan McCurdy also netted eight of his 10 points in the fourth quarter and it was his three-point play that gave the Hawks the lead for good at 47-46 with 5:14 to play.
Highland lost a pair of games to Gilbert during the regular season.