There’s a buzz at Gilbert High this week. A big push has been made to get kids and families out to the west side of town tonight for the 5A Division I state semifinal against Gilbert Highland.
On Wednesday, Tigers coach Jay Caserio had a stream of colleagues walk by to congratulate and talk shop with him outside the school.
Not that playing a rival requires extra juice, but Gilbert hasn’t been this far since it won a state championship in 2003, when Caserio was the school’s freshman coach sitting behind the bench.
He and his program have moved up a notch this tournament, a somewhat surprising disposition given some of the struggles the Tigers faced this season.
Players were lost, some for good, others temporarily. Offensive schemes were tweaked. Losses piled up in a Fiesta Region that offered no reprieve to any of its teams.
It was two weeks ago the Tigers entered this tournament as a No. 13 seed, and were 5-9 (including the region tournament) since New Year’s.
Then they won at No. 4 Laveen Cesar Chavez by one point and used excellent free throw shooting to help knock off another Fiesta foe in No. 5 Gilbert Mesquite.
Next up is Highland, which won both previous meetings this season, each in a close contest.
“I don’t look at them any different than we have before,” Highland coach Mark Carlino said. “We’ll approach them the same, they’re our arch-rival. We’ll never take them lightly. They’re not going to surprise us.”
The Tigers lost a couple players around Christmas time for various reasons — which required adjusting player roles and on-floor positioning — and shin splits suffered by senior forward Seth Taylor became a giant obstacle.
At 6-foot-4, 185 pounds, Taylor is the team’s best interior defender and rebounder. Though he went a month without practicing, he refused to miss a game, even though Caserio saw it was “difficult for him to walk down the hallways.” He was held out of the region tournament, and the 10-day reprieve has helped a small amount.
“Seth is kind of the heart and soul of our team,” Caserio said. “He goes unnoticed.”
After consecutive wins to begin Fiesta play, Gilbert finished 3-5 and lost four consecutive entering the state tournament, but there was no complaining or threats of checking out on this season mentally.
Good thing, because the last time Gilbert was in the high school final four, it was the last one standing.
“We’re happy to play in March,” Caserio said. “We’re grateful for a chance at playing and coaching one more week.”
5A-I Boys Basketball semifinals
No. 13 Gilbert vs. No. 1 Highland
When: 7:45 p.m.
Where: Jobing.com Arena
Previous meetings: Jan. 23: Highland 65, Gilbert 57; Feb. 10: Highland 59, Gilbert 51.
Gilbert at a glance: The Tigers entered the tournament on a four-game losing streak, but have pulled off a pair of upsets to advance to the semis. Gilbert relies on its guards for scoring, with Elliot Clark and Shawn King doing much of the damage. The Tigers won’t have any problem playing a methodical contest if Highland lets them, but Gilbert can get out in transition with its backcourt. The key will be to avoid rushing its offense and settling for quick shots.
Highland at a glance: Nick Johnson saved the season with a putback to beat Chandler in overtime in the quarterfinals, and finished the game with 30 points, seven assists and five rebounds. The talented sophomore may have to do it again, as backcourt mate Matt Carlino has been battling a hip pointer. Highland needs to get out and run because it has depth and athletes.
Key to the game: Highland has a tendency to settle for bad shots on offense, but if the Hawks attack the rim and push the tempo, they should win this game. If Gilbert defends and rebounds the way it has the past couple weeks, an upset will be in the works.
Prediction: Highland 65, Gilbert 57. Between Carlino, the Johnson duo and K.C. Toolson, Highland’s athleticism and improved passing will make it difficult for Gilbert on defense.
No. 6 Buena vs. No. 2 St. Mary’s
When: 6 p.m.
Where: Jobing.com Arena
Previous meetings: Have not played this season.
Buena at a glance: Buena is riding high after upsetting Mesa Mountain view in the quarterfinals. There is no go-to guy, but Buena has seven players averaging seven or more points per game. The Colts have won 11 of their past 12 games and rally around being the underdog.
St. Mary’s at a glance: The Knights are very athletic, with Arizona State-bound Demetrius Walker leading the way. If the intensity is there, St. Mary’s is very hard to beat. The Knights have lost to just two teams from Arizona this year, and have won 14 of 15 overall.
Key to the game: Buena is smaller and less athletic, so it must rebound and be fundamentally sound.
Prediction: St. Mary’s 60, Buena 51. Too much size and too much Walker will eventually wear down a Buena squad that hasn’t seen a team this athletic all season.