Salpointe’s unlikely season of once again having championship aspirations came to a close Thursday night, not in the overtime period, but shortly before regulation ended in the 62-57 loss to Surprise Paradise Honors in the 4A state semifinal game.
“It boiled down to them making a few more plays than we made,” said Jim Reynolds, Salpointe’s retiring head coach who led the Lancers to the school’s first state title last season with a senior-laden lineup that included one of the best to play the game in this city, Harvard-bound Evan Nelson.
The Lancers came so close to winning against Paradise Honors, but opportunities slipped away because of uncharacteristic turnovers, leading scorer Brady Ramon fouling out and a flurry of last-second shots falling off the mark before the fourth quarter clock reached 0:00.
Paradise Honors beats Salpointe 62-57 in the 4A state semifinals. pic.twitter.com/5B5dE4FSPR
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) March 19, 2021
Julian Riesgo, Salpointe’s catalyst on this night, seemed to put the Lancers up for good 53-49 with two free throws with exactly 1 minute left in regulation.
The Lancers’ defense could not prevent Paradise Honors’ Blessing Nwotite from penetrating and he was fouled driving to the lane. His two free throws cut the lead to 53-51 with 51.7 seconds remaining.
Reynolds called timeout with 41.7 seconds left. The Lancers coming out of a timeout under Reynolds usually produces desired results but an errant inbound pass was snared by Jalen Scott, who was fouled by Ramon while Ramon tried to lunge for the ball.
Ramon, a senior captain who had all of his 11 points before halftime, went to the bench with five fouls with 38 seconds left. Scott made both free throws to tie the game at 53.
“We kind of got ourselves in position and just didn’t take care of the ball as well as we normally do, which is really a strength for us,” Reynolds said. “Brady’s fifth foul was just an inadvertent thing. He just couldn’t help it trying to save the turnover … Obviously, that hurts not having him on the court.”
Salpointe played for the last shot in regulation with last Saturday’s hero against Glendale Deer Valley, guard Nico Castaneda, who made the game-winning shot in that game, the primary ball-handler.
Castaneda drew a second defender when he made a quick left step and passed to Riesgo for a 3-point shot. Riesgo’s shot bounced off the rim and Dillan Baker tracked down the ball in the corner and tried to shoot in one motion. The ball fell short and Tommy Irish grabbed it and his attempt did not fall before the buzzer sounded.
“I think we got a couple of looks at it, a couple rebounds out of it, and it didn’t drop,” Reynolds said.
With Ramon on the bench and Baker fouling out in overtime, Salpointe could not make a shot in overtime and was 4 of 6 from the free throw line. Paradise Honors also did not convert from the field in overtime, but the Panthers had an incredible 16 free throw attempts in the four-minute period and managed to make nine of them after enduring a stretch of missing six straight shots from the line.
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) March 19, 2021
“I know we won the turnover battle in overtime and that ended up being the difference,” Paradise Honors coach Zach Hettel said. “We could not make a free throw for a while. This probably would not have been as close as it was in the end if we made our free throws.
“They’re a great team. Coach Reynolds does a great job. I know our guys are psyched about getting past that team and being able to play for the championship on Saturday.”
Paradise Honors (20-2) will face Phoenix St. Mary’s in the championship at 2:30 p.m. at St. John Paul II High School in Avondale.
The Panthers have played in the 2A, 3A and now 4A state semifinals in the last four years under Hettel, who is his sixth year at a school that has been sanctioned by the Arizona Interscholastic Association for less than a decade.
Scott, who also fouled out and was not a factor in overtime, led Paradise Valley with 17 points. Nwotite, who made the game-winning shot against Goodyear Desert Edge on Saturday, made 5 of 8 free throw attempts in overtime.
Salpointe, which finishes 18-3, played true to form with its balanced scoring with Riesgo the leader with 13 points, Baker with 12, Irish and Ramon with 11 and Castaneda with nine.
“Coach Reynolds came in four years ago, the summer going into my freshman year, and he told us we’d be competing for state championships, and he delivered on his promise,” Castaneda said. “I gave everything I had to this program along with the other seniors. At least we went out battling.”
Reynolds, 66, ends his 33-year head coaching career that included 29 years in Cincinnati with 536 career victories. He finished 90-23 in his four years at Salpointe after starting 3-14 in his first season in 2017-18.
He will move out of Tucson on Tuesday for Denver, where he will be with his wife Linda, daughter Erica and her husband and his grandson Carson. Another grandchild is due in September. His son Ryan is Arizona’s director of basketball operations.
“I’m really proud of the guys this season fighting through the adversity of COVID-19 and putting together this run,” Reynolds said. “These guys were seeking a championship, not defending one, because it was a different group of guys with all of the seniors we had last year.
“For me, I’ve gotta figure out how to live without coaching. As I told the guys in the locker room after the game, you’ve gotta get past the sting of the defeat and just remember the journey. And it’s been one hell of a journey.”
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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.