Castaneda sends Salpointe to 4A state semifinals with winning shot

If high school basketball in this town was like college basketball, Salpointe coach Jim Reynolds would have left himself open for criticism in the Lancers’ 63-61 win over visiting Glendale Deer Valley on Saturday night.

What coach in his right mind would design a last-second play with the game and season on the line for a player who made only one shot in the game and not for the two standouts who have made a combined 16 baskets?

That’s what happened when Brady Ramon, Salpointe’s leading scorer with 22 points, inbounded the ball to Nico Castaneda with 14.2 seconds left and the game tied in the 4A state quarterfinal game.

Instead of Castaneda passing the ball back to Ramon and clearing out for the scoring threat, Castaneda kept the dribble and became the go-to guy despite having only two points.

Ramon, meanwhile, went to the corner to draw his defender away from Castaneda. As Castaneda dribbled near the elbow, Salpointe’s three other players kept clear including prominent big man Myles Hersha, who used his height advantage of 6-foot-9 to tally 17 points mostly inside.

Hersha was taken out of the play by Reynolds, and Ramon became a secondary escape valve in case Castaneda needed help.

“We have a set where we have a couple guys up top, we put some guys in the corner and we leave the big guy on the block,” Reynolds said. “I knew they would really key on Brady so we put him in the corner, kind of thinking it would be open for a drive and a shot.

“Kind of had a feeling Nico was the guy. He’s very confident and he can go by guys and he’s not afraid of taking a shot that matters.”

Castaneda looked for his shot the entire time, never peering over at Ramon as he dribbled against his defender. His quick-step dribble to his left freed him and he elevated for the jump shot with about 4 seconds left.

It was a bold premonition for Reynolds to have Castaneda take the shot inasmuch as entering the game, Castaneda averaged only 4.3 field goal attempts. Ramon averaged 11.6. Based on field goal attempts of his teammates, Castaneda has been the seventh option this season.

In the most significant play of the most important game of the year, all eyes were on Castaneda.

“Coach thought I had a good matchup and I mean, we got into our play. He said if I had a look to take it,” Castaneda said. “I thought I had a good matchup, so I took it. We put Brady in the corner just in case they came over and helped. Brady can knock down a three, obviously.

“Coach ran a good play. They put their trust in me. That’s all I can ask for.”

“This time it worked out,” Reynolds said. “We look smart. If it didn’t go down, who knows what we look like.”

The shot was a swish but four seconds remained.

Greg Giles took the inbound pass, dribbled upcourt without a defender in front of him and he released a shot with Hersha nearby. His shot missed and all of Salpointe’s players went into a frenzy, mobbing Castaneda on the court.

Nobody showed anger or angst coming out of the huddle with 14.2 seconds left that Reynolds decided to go with Castaneda for the shot.

Castaneda has played with Ramon, Hersha and Dillon Baker since their youth basketball days and Castaneda is a respected senior who is nearing the end of his basketball career.

“I already knew that he was going to take the shot; he is always confident,” said Ramon, who scored 15 of his points in the first half. “He knows he can hit the shot. He always hits the shot in practice.”

The No. 2-seeded Lancers (18-2) advance to the semifinals, where they will host No. 3 Surprise Paradise Honors (19-2) on Thursday at 7 p.m. No. 4 Flagstaff Coconino (16-1) plays at No. 1 Phoenix St. Mary’s (18-1) in the other semifinal Thursday.

The winners play Saturday at 2:30 p.m. in the title game at St. John Paul II High School in Avondale.

Nobody thought Salpointe would get this far again after losing the entire starting lineup from last year’s state championship.

It was the school’s first title from when Larry Baroldy coached the initial team starting on Dec. 12, 1952. Reynolds also longs to cut down the nets again after doing so last year for the first time in his storied career.

Reynolds, whose son Ryan is Arizona’s director of basketball operations, is in his 32nd year as a coach, including his 25 years at Cincinnati’s Madeira High School.

“Four guys off the bench (last year) are four of our five starters now, so they had good experience practicing against those guys and good experience from the minutes they logged subbing,” Reynolds said. “What was lost (because of COVID-19) was no summer games, not tournaments … all those games were lost and those are games that usually helped us to see what we weren’t good at.

“I give our guys credit. They hung in there.”

Neither team took more than a seven-point lead. After Salpointe got out to a 19-14 lead in the first quarter behind Ramon’s nine points, the score in the next three quarters was Deer Valley 47, Salpointe 44.

A key stretch was after Deer Valley took a 56-54 lead on a 3-pointer by Jayden Sleeper with 4:43 remaining. The Lancers scored six straight points on shots by seniors Tommy Irish (his only basket of the game), Ramon and Hersha to take a 60-56 lead with 2:32 left.

Missed free throws by Salpointe allowed Deer Valley to tie the game at 61 when Samajay James made two from the line with 33.8 seconds left. After Salpointe brought the ball up, Reynolds called timeout with 14.2 seconds left to design the game-winning play for Castaneda.

The Lancers are two games from the unthinkable, winning another state title. They have already surpassed the expectations of outsiders.

“Growing up, me and Brady and Nico and Dillon have all been the underdogs,” Hersha said. “We know what it takes to come back and prove ourselves, so we’re ready to go into the semifinals and go for it after that.”


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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