Her voice was practically gone after a week of illness and nearly an hour of postgame celebration, but Anne Marie Holter was happy to keep talking about what some would now call a dynasty that's unfolded at Seton Catholic.
Flanked by a controversial timeout sequence in the third quarter, the Sentinels were on the fortunate end of a bizarre timeout/officiating sequence, and from then on it was No. 3-seeded Seton which took a stance defensively in a 52-44 victory at Jobing.com Arena.
Despite a significantly different roster than the previous two versions, the Sentinels have now won three consecutive state championships and six under long-time coach Karen Self.
“I didn’t think that was possible going into high school,” Holter said of the trifecta.
Three seniors were on this year’s roster, which means the core group of sophomores and juniors that made up this team will return. The junior Holter and junior Susan Spinner were among four kids who played significant minutes last year that returned, but even Holter missed a healthy chunk of last season because of a stress fracture in her foot until she returned in time for the state tournament.
Outside those four, everyone else hadn’t played. There were no marquee names, no uber-athletic players that Seton has enjoyed in the past couple years. This year was about balanced contributions and what Self called the best defensive team she’s ever coached.
“And that’s why this is so great,” Self said.
The tough, man-to-man, take-away-the-perimeter mantra worked against bigger, quicker Peoria. Cecelia Pearl scored 24 points for Peoria inside and with mid-range jump shots, but that was it for the Panthers.
The young Sentinels were calm and collected most of the day on this big stage. They handled Peoria’s defensive pressure with quick passing, made their free throws (12 of 14 for the game, including 9-for-10 in the fourth quarter) and didn’t allow anyone besides Pearl to reach double figures.
Meanwhile, Heather Heild led Seton with 16 points. Holter and Julia Barcello each scored 13.
The game appeared to swing shortly after Seton’s 20-18 halftime lead.
It was 27-26 when Seton called a 30-second timeout. Seton kids then went back on the floor, but Peoria kids were still huddled with coach Leslie Saulsby (with a couple video cameras behind them in the huddle).
An official blew his whistle and Seton inbounded the ball on the other side of the floor while Peoria was still in the huddle. The official blew his whistle to signal the start of play, and, playing 5-on-0, Seton made a layup. Saulsby screamed about it most of the second half, but the basket stood.
"We got screwed," Saulsby said. (The official) says the horn went off but the thing was, then come warn me. I didn’t hear the horn. You noticed after that he never came over again. That’s not an accident. That’s purposeful.
"I don’t know what it was, call it ego, bad officiating. That’s unacceptable from the (Arizona Interscholastic Association). I expect better officiating any game, much less the state championship game."
"...That’s not why we lost the game. We lost the game because we made mistakes and Seton played well. We got out-played, maybe out-coached, we lost the agme as players and coaches. I don’t want to take anything away from Seton. They played an excellent game."
Seton gradually pulled away from that point forward, and led by as many as 10 points early in the fourth quarter. The Panthers pulled back within 43-37 with 3:33 left, but Seton’s defense shut them down again.
Self cited the Jan. 13 win against Phoenix South Mountain as this team’s "a-ha" moment, when the Sentinels beat a team that Self estimated was nearly twice as athletic as her team.
It happened again Saturday, as it did through most of the regular season and February.
"It was about heart and hard work," Holter said. "We knew this would be a tough road."
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at email@example.com or (480) 898-6576.