Tempe coach Bryan Snyder waited until the fourth quarter of the state semifinals to employ a full-court press he hadn’t used this season, and he really wasn’t sure if it would work.
Nyial Watson and Jordan Baker led the stingy late game defense as the Buffaloes used a 21-3 run in the final 5:39 of the contest to defeat Thunderbird 61-49 and advance to the 4A-II boys basketball state championship game on Saturday at Noon at Jobing.com Arena.
The team has never won a state championship and hasn’t advanced this far since 1990, the year before Snyder began as an assistant coach at the school.
“It’s a dream come true,” guard B.J. Atkins said. “We’ve been talking about this all year.”
Tempe trailed 46-40 with 6:34 remaining on a bucket by Thunderbird’s Marcus Wheeler, but held the Chiefs to only three points the rest of the way.
Watson and Baker forced multiple turnovers to turn the momentum in favor of Tempe as Thunderbird seemed flummoxed by the trap.
“We wanted to save that trickery for the end of the season, and it showed,” Baker said.
Baker finished with 32 points, seven rebounds and four steals and Watson added nine points in addition to his defense.
Wheeler led Thunderbird with 23 points, including 18 points in the first half, but scored only two in the fourth quarter and fouled out with 2:49 remaining with the Buffaloes clinging to a 49-46 lead.
Baker had 16 points in the fourth quarter, including hitting 12-of-15 free throws.
The game stayed close in the first half, as Thunderbird led 33-31 at intermission. It looked like the Chiefs were threatening to run away with it when they pushed the lead to as many as nine points in the third quarter, but the Buffaloes never faltered.
Baker hit two free throws with 4:14 remaining to give Tempe a 47-46 advantage it wouldn't relinquish.
A score by Watson with 3:21 left was the team’s final field goal, but the Buffaloes hit 12 free throws the rest of the way to clinch the win.
“I knew we’d make our free throws, so all we needed was the stops,” Watson said.