Tucson High School Sports

Sahuaro Survives Intense Challenge by Pueblo and Fox, Advances to 4A Semifinals

Sahuaro coach Steve Botkin on Saturday afternoon went from enjoying the sweet sound of an orchestra to being engulfed in high school basketball’s equivalent of a loud rock concert.

He watched his daughter Alyssa play the cello in a symphony competition at Sahuarita during the afternoon to coaching her and the Cougars against Pueblo in the 4A state quarterfinal game, an intense and frantically-paced affair at Sahuaro’s Dick McConnell Gym with more than 1,000 in attendance, many of them cheering for Pueblo.

“Wow, what a day,” the elder Botkin said, wiping his brow.

The No. 4 Cougars (26-3) survived 12th-seeded Pueblo (26-5) and the pesky and talented Summer Fox with a 69-54 victory.

They advance to the 4A state semifinals on Friday at 5:45 p.m. at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix. They will face top-seed Phoenix Shadow Mountain, which is also 26-3 after beating Buckeye 68-48 in another quarterfinal game on Saturday.

The other semifinal matchup is No. 2 Seton Catholic Prep facing No. 3 Mesquite (which defeated No. 6 Salpointe on Saturday night).

One snapshot of the evening was Alyssa Botkin showing up to the gym carrying not her basketball shoes (she forgot them in the car) but the dress shoes she wore to the symphony.

It was that kind of day, but in both instances, the Botkins came away with a harmonic feeling from his daughter’s performance with the cello to diversely talented sophomore forward Alyssa Brown finishing with 35 points against the Warriors.

“That’s the toughest crowd … that’s the toughest team,” the elder Botkin said after the win over a gritty Pueblo team, led by the ultra-aggressive Fox, a senior who went out with a bang (33 points — 20 of them in the fourth quarter).

“We played Sabino, who is excellent. We’ve played Salpointe, who’s excellent. But we have not had that physical of a game before. To overcome (Pueblo) being super physical, and the crazy crowd and everything, will absolutely help us moving forward.”

Saturday night’s game between Pueblo and Sahuaro had a little of everything, including fans ejected in the second half because of vulgarities. Fans from both sides tried to be louder than the other on some occasions, which made for a raucous atmosphere and caused both teams to push the tempo and play frenetically at times.

There were 44 fouls called and 57 free throws attempted by both teams.

“The crowd was so intense; you had to be locked in and focused on the game and not be distracted,” said Sahuaro sophomore guard Lucky Franke who played through having four fouls by the third quarter and finished with 19 points.

Sahuaro managed to stay unbeaten this season at home, with a 16-0 record, despite the relentless performance of Fox, who had much to do with Sahuaro committing 24 turnovers.

She continuously filled the passing lanes, tipping or intercepting passes, and stripped balls loose from dribblers. After coming up with the ball, she attacked the basket fearlessly and either converted a layup or drew fouls — plenty of them, to the tune of 22 free throws attempted in the game, eight of them in the fourth quarter.

With the game no longer in doubt late in the game, and Pueblo coach Ismael Galindo subbing out his starters, you could sense Sahuaro gave a huge sigh of relief seeing Fox head to the bench.

“I just feel like it was the last quarter and my coach said, ‘Go,’ because we were already down 10 to 15 points with nothing to lose,” said Fox, who is bound for Black Hills State in South Dakota on a basketball scholarship.

“I wanted to keep attacking because I knew they were in foul trouble (Brown also finished with four fouls), so I tried to draw the fouls. The adrenaline was running and the emotions were going.”

“Summer has the heart of a lion,” Galindo added. “Non-stop motor, goes 100 percent all of the time.”

Galindo, in a symbolic move, asked two of his top players — Getsemani Cazares and Mariah Clark — to stand by him while being interviewed after the game. They locked arms around his shoulders.

Pueblo lost by 15 points but the Warriors’ resolve made it seem like Sahuaro squeaked it out.

After falling behind by as many as 17 points in the first half, the Warriors scored the first seven points of the second half to cut the lead to 32-27 with 5:52 left in the third quarter. Brown already had three fouls by then.

“In all honesty with this team, with they way I taught them and trained them, they never quit,” Galindo said. “We started out sloppy and slow. I think the magnitude of the game got to them. They were a little bit nervous.

“But they never quit. They never stop.”

Sahuaro showed its mental toughness answering Pueblo’s charge with a 10-0 run to push the lead up to 42-27 with 4:20 remaining in the third quarter. Franke, undaunted despite her youth, led that run with a 3-point play and a 3-point shot.

“You just have to be disciplined and be able to keep your composure,” Franke said. “If you don’t, you’re going to mess everything up.”

The inside-outside combination of Brown and Franke will be crucial for Sahuaro having an opportunity to beat Shadow Mountain, which has four Division I prospects on its roster.

Botkin also has something special with Brown and Franke the next two seasons. They helped stave off Pueblo, combining for 24 of Sahuaro’s 37 points in the second half. Senior guard Luly Heslep also scored seven of her nine points in the second half.

The trio combined for 18 free throw attempts in the second half and they made 14.

“What I’m most proud of is when they made that run, and cut the lead to five, and I called a timeout, the girls they didn’t get on each other,” Botkin said. “They just said, ‘Hey, let’s go get this momentum back.’ And they did.

“We just said that we can’t play that pace. We’re more of a bring-it-down, set-it-up. We can play at that pace but we can’t play at that pace for a long time because we get a little off-kilter. I’m proud of them because we got halfcourt a couple of times and got some great looks under the basket to Alyssa and Luly a couple of times and Lucky hit a couple of big free throws and we were able to extend that lead again. It wasn’t comfortable but it was 10 or 12 points.”

He then said with a laugh, “It was never comfortable.”

What helped calm his nerves was the ability of Brown to frequently bring the ball upcourt despite being the tallest player on the court at 6-foot-1 (which will make her a highly sought Division I prospect).

That helped loosen Pueblo’s defense once past half-court because the lane was free of defenders, allowing Brown to either penetrate to the basket or dish to Franke or Heslep for them to take shots or pass back to her for a high-percentage shot.

“Two years ago, I started transitioning more into a guard, just so I can be a more well-rounded player,” Brown said.

“She’s a great ballhandler,” Botkin added. “When she gets to college, she might be a one (point guard) or a two (shooting guard). She can handled the ball. We have some good guards so we don’t need her to do that a lot.

“But against Pueblo, the way they were trapping in the corners, we said let’s reverse it back to Alyssa and let her come up the middle. She did some quick crossovers and got by them, which is huge because once she broke down three or four defenders, we had numbers.”

Shadow Mountain will present another difficult challenge, one in which Botkin said his team must, “play a near-perfect game.”

“But this team, it doesn’t surprise me,” Botkin added of his team. “They’re very calm. They’re very collected. A couple of times, it got a little goofy in there. I thought we did a good job of walking away and calming down.”

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