The difference between regular season and postseason?
Pressure. Or possibly a lack thereof.
On Thursday night at Mesquite High School in Gilbert, the home team was expected to win.
Mesquite had defeated Tempe Corona del Sol twice during Central Region play, sported a better record, and a No. 5 seed.
But from the opening tip to the final buzzer, it was 12th-seeded Corona del Sol which played like a state title contender, with an impressive 66-49 victory over Mesquite in a 5A-I state boys basketball tournament first-round game.
The win sets up a quarterfinal game Saturday against No. 4 Phoenix North.
“What a great win,” Corona del Sol Coach Sam Duane Jr. said.
“Nobody expected us to win, so there was no pressure on us. But sometimes that makes it easier to play better basketball.”
Corona del Sol (19-9) led from start to finish, utilizing a balanced offensive attack that saw four players score in double figures.
Senior Kyle Noon led the Aztecs with 18 points. His 3-pointer at the end of the first quarter gave Corona a 13-7 lead and a boost of confidence.
Guards Marcel Towns (16 points) and Calaen Robinson (14) used their quickness to penetrate lanes and create open looks for Corona’s offense.
Forward David Whitmore added 12 points for the Aztecs.
“We’ve got four players who average double figures all season, so we knew our offense had the balance,” Duane said.
“But the difference tonight was that we were able to stop (Mesquite) from getting transition points. The first two times we played them, we weren’t able to stop their transition game, which resulted in a lot of easy fast-break points. But for the most part we prevented that tonight, and forced them into a half-court offense.”
Mesquite (25-5) overcame a sluggish first quarter, and pulled within one point, 23-22, of Corona just before halftime. Isaiah Strong and Christian Bower combined for 13 of Mesquite’s 15 second-quarter points, as the Wildcats seemed ready to take control of the game.
But Corona came out firing in the second half. Whitmore connected on a pair of three point field goals, increasing the Aztec lead to eight points near the end of the quarter. Mesquite would never get closer than five points before Corona pulled away in the final minutes.
Mesquite coach Tom Saltzstein offered a simple explanation for his team’s early exit.
“We got outplayed, out-hustled, and out-coached tonight by Corona del Sol, and they deserved to win the game.”
Bower and Strong both finished with 16 points for Mesquite.