Monday's beginning to the girls basketball state tournament quarterfinals featured a Hamilton girls basketball team which looked as if it had been here before, had played in a college backdrop at Wells Fargo Arena more than once. The Huskies came out running, gunning and rebounding in its victory over a quick but inexperienced Avondale Westview squad.
Things went a bit south on the Huskies after halftime, but the fourth quarter brought back the defensive, athletic frontcourt prominence the Huskies have had for the past couple years with Aaliyah Dickson, Ashlee Moore and Kyndall Adams, a core group who've led the Huskies gradual rise to prominence the past four years.
Standing in the team's way both this week and the past couple years - as it has everyone else in Arizona high schools girls basketball - is No. 1 St. Mary's.
The two schools meet again in Thursday's first Division I basketball semifinal of the day/night at Wells Fargo Arena, and though the No. 5-seeded Huskies know what they're up against - several kids from each team see one another in club ball tournaments - knowledge could be power.
"It's a little too early," Adams said of the teams' semifinal meeting.
Another third-quarter struggle similar to Monday's won't work this time, but the Huskies already saw St. Mary's (27-1) earlier this season and their 57-39 loss to the Knights on Jan. 7 was as close as any Arizona school has come to the two-time defending state champions.
It seemed to be understood that everyone eventually might have to go through St. Mary's if it wants to win a championship, regardless of where they were put in the bracket.
"We didn't worry about that but once the brackets came out it was going to happen if we kept winning," Adams said. "It's exciting but we have to get after it from the start. We need to come out confident and not be so tentative and we'll be OK.
The tentativeness stemmed from the first meeting, a 22-12 advantage for St. Mary's after the first quarter put the Huskies on a seemingly insurmountable climb against the fast, talented Knights.
Otherwise, Hamilton played St. Mary's even on the scoreboard most of the rest of the night until the Huskies were forced to foul in the closing couple minutes.
"We have to jump on them and stay on them," Dickson said, noting the Huskies only did one of those two facets against Westview in the quarterfinals. "You have to stay on them and we have to play as a team."
For the seniors (Dickson, Adams, Casey Rowden, Christian Reynard and Alexa Hogberg), what's coming is expected, along with the junior Moore.
But in addition to the last go-round with this core group which entered a program that had one playoff appearance in school history, but will leave having been a part of at least the state quarterfinals the past four years, the brand new backcourt has also sampled St. Mary's.
When Lauren Evans graduated last year it left a large void in the backcourt as a ball-handler and offensive instigator. Jeff Kain's team has turned to freshman Payton Whitmore at the point guard, and though it was a struggle at times, the experience of playing St. Mary's once before could be a big help in a game full of trapping and defensive pressure that requires flawless execution to not only beat the Knights' pressure, but avoid turnovers and setting up the Knights to score in transition.
The return of junior Shelby Hartman this season has also been a boost at times for the Huskies. A solid outside shooter, Hartman missed all of last season when she tore her ACL during a random gym session late in the fall, but Kain raved about her work ethic and "hustle plays."
Kain noted this program's turnaround the past 4-5 years now puts the Huskies on the verge of being perennial contenders the way fellow Div. I schools St. Mary's (obviously), Highland and Dobson have become.
But this is the last week for a few of the girls who've made the idea possible.
"It's sad. It's our last time and we're not going to get to experience this ever anymore," Adams said. "It's a lot of friendships and memories."
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.