Salpointe reaches first state title game in 18 years

Salpointe Catholic emerged from its locker room Wednesday night dancing and chanting, “State! State! State!” and posed for group selfies at a time the Lancers really needed to let loose.

In a season delayed and compacted by COVID-19, which at first kept parents from attending their games, the Lancers have persevered to the 4A state title game with a 19-1 record under first-year coach Joseph Luevano.

The championship has a Catholic feel with Salpointe playing defending champion Seton Catholic (19-1) on Saturday at noon at St. John Paul II Catholic High School in Avondale.

“I’m so excited and emotional,” said Salpointe’s cool, collected and confident sophomore point guard Bria Medina after the 51-46 semifinal win over rival Sahuaro at Salpointe’s gym.

“I’m just so excited that we even got here. … We’re going to win state. We’ve got it.”

Who could doubt her on this night?

Medina had 20 points, eight in the first quarter as she set the tone early, and then capped the performance with eight more in the fourth quarter with five coming on free throws.

Tessa Hastings, a junior, had 11 points as did Kylee Callahan, another junior who made six free throws in the fourth quarter.

Medina and Callahan combined to make 11 of 14 free throws in the fourth quarter after Sahuaro reached the bonus with 6:08 left in the game.

“We practice those a lot in practice,” Callahan said of the free throws. “It’s just motion memory and muscle memory. We tried to tune out the crowd and just hit them.

“I’m really excited, we haven’t been here in a while.”

The program has never won a state title. The Lancers have made it to the championship game only once before, at the end of the 2002-03 season, when they lost 48-45 to Gilbert Highland.

Pete Fajardo, now an assistant at Pima College, was the head coach and Sybil Dosty was the star for the Lancers who went on to play at Tennessee and ASU.

“I’m not going to lie that winning that game is a little bit more meaningful because the last four years that I’ve been part of this program, Sahuaro has been our arch nemesis,” said Luevano, who was an assistant under Justin Curran for three years before taking over the program this year.

“To win here tonight, to move on to the state championship game, I can’t lie, it means a little extra.”

Salpointe was 1-8 against Sahuaro and star forward Alyssa Brown in the last four seasons before winning the last two meetings this year.

The Lancers have won 15 consecutive games at home dating to Jan. 10, 2020 when Sahuaro was the last team to beat them.

“We talked about it at the beginning of the season the three things that we needed to change as a program,” Luevano said. “We needed to be mentally tougher. We needed to finish our layups. We needed to be better free throw shooters.

“We’ve addressed all of those in waves throughout this whole year, but tonight all three of those saved us. We made some really key layups, made our free throws when it mattered the most and we were mentally tough when it mattered the most.”

The game was close throughout with Sahuaro rallying after trailing 14-8 after the first quarter to take a 22-20 halftime lead. The Cougars led 34-33 entering the fourth quarter.

The difference in the last quarter was Sahuaro’s abundance of turnovers and fouls and Medina and Callahan making the Cougars pay at the free throw line.

Right after Brown picked up her third foul and Salpointe went to the bonus with 6:08 left, the Lancers outscored the Cougars 8-2 to open a 41-36 lead with 2:56 left.

After two free throws by Callahan gave Salpointe a 47-41 lead, freshman Cassandra Coolidge made a 3-pointer with 12 seconds left. Medina then answered with two more free throws with 10.3 seconds left to secure the win.

Sahuaro ends the Brown era with an 18-2 record this year and 96-11 overall in the last four seasons, including a loss against Seton Catholic in the championship game last year.

“We made some mental mistakes down the stretch with our turnovers, but I got to hand it to the girls and this senior class,” Sahuaro coach Steve Botkin said of Brown, Lucky Franke, Lily Watson and Amyra Perry-Fultz. “I told them the tradition and the legacy they leave behind with four Final Fours and almost 100 wins, it’s just incredible.

“I said to the underclassmen I hope they see what these guys are leaving behind and they need to pick it up to continue what we are.”

Salpointe is in the state title game for the first time since the 2002-03 season (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

Salpointe senior Jaya Nelson, a good friend and former AAU teammate of Brown, leaves behind her own legacy with a 38-3 home record in her career.

The Lancers, 85-22 with Nelson, advanced to the state playoffs the last four years and finally moved past the quarterfinal round this season.

“It all came down to the girls that we had, buying in and believing in the system that we’re trying to run,” said Luevano, who also credited longtime coaches Henry Bribiescas of Mesa Dobson and Michael Perkins of Flowing Wells, as well as Curran, for aiding his development.

“It’s not offense and defense, it’s about playing together. We’ve played together enough this season to get to this point.”

Brown finished with 29 points (the only Cougar in double figures) on Wednesday before fouling out with 0.3 seconds remaining in the game. She ended her career with 2,680 points, second in the Arizona career scoring list to former Catalina Foothills standout Julie Brase (Lute Olson‘s granddaughter), who had 2,913 points from 1994-98.

Brown and her mom Lisa Moore, a former standout at Tucson High, were two of the last people to leave the gym. It appeared as if Brown wanted to savor every last moment of her time in a Sahuaro uniform. They had a tearful embrace as they departed.

It was an especially emotional experience because Moore’s two older daughters Olivia and Sydney Harden were also high-profile players under Botkin. Brown brought a close to the last chapter of the family’s basketball long and storied existence at the school.

She will continue her career at UNLV.

“Always taking a chance,” Brown said when asked what she will take from her experience at Sahuaro to UNLV. “I was the freshman on varsity who had huge shoes to fill from my older sisters. I have to play to myself, and I’m the only thing holding myself back.

“There’s been times where I scored less than what I usually score. I just have to push through it and take the chances and fight through the odds.”

Arizona Girls Basketball Career Scoring Leaders

1Julie BraseCatalina Foothills1994-19982,913
2Alyssa BrownSahuaro2017-20212,680
3Kayla PedersenRed Mountain2003-20072,611
4Christina WirthSeton Catholic2001-20052,550
5Kayla MackenzieKellis2006-20102,515
6Ashley WirtzbergerYuma Catholic/Gila Bend2006-20102,505
7Alexis CortezTucson2012-20162,479
8Nicole PowellMountain Pointe1996-20002,478
9Shaylee GonzalesMesquite2014-20182,385
10Olivia SnyderGreen Fields2009-20132,382


ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.

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