Takeaways from the Nike TOC: Salpointe Catholic poised for another strong season

The Nike Tournament of Champions made its return to Phoenix following a hiatus in 2020, attracting some of the top high school girls basketball programs from across the country for the four-day competition. Featuring teams from 26 different states and Canada, it’s one of the premiere girls basketball competitions. The Salpointe Catholic Lancers, last year’s 4A State Runner-ups, were among one of the 96 teams who participated in this year’s event. 

“The experience has been great,” coach Joseph Luevano said. “We played against some incredibly tough competition and we were unknowingly placed in a very tough bracket where if you lost, your reward was having to face another incredibly talented, angry team.”

While the Lancers went 1-3 in the tournament, there was a lot the team was able to gain from the opportunity. This year’s Lancer squad features a mix of experience, with two freshmen who hold key roles on the court. It also features three solid upperclassmen who return from last season with experience, and a key defensive senior player. 

“We have an interesting team dynamic this year that’s much different than last year,” Luevano said. “The strength of this team is how hard they play and that they are incredibly tough athletes that are becoming more and more resilient.”

Luevano credited Salpointe strength and conditioning coach Carla Garrett for the team’s improved toughness and mental grit. Garrett has been pushing the girls to their limits in the weight room, helping them mentally prepare for physical battles like the ones they faced over the weekend. 

Salpointe tipped off on Saturday against Clovis West, a highly defensive team out of California. The Lancers were able to keep it close to start things off, but unfortunately couldn’t hold on in the end. 

Salpointe had the lead to close out the first, with the final bucket coming from freshman Hannah Williams

“[Williams] joined us early in June and played with us throughout the summer, so that greatly benefited her, and us, as well,” Luevano said. “She’s a sponge on the court and she’s learning rapidly how to improve her game. The last few games she’s become more aggressive, more comfortable and she’s starting to dominate in the paint.” 

Another freshman, Allison Even, came off the bench to put up a couple points of her own, with junior Bria Medina hitting the final shot before halftime to give Salpointe a 30-26 lead going into the locker room. 

“Bria is one of the most underrated athletes in the state,” Luevano said. “She has worked very hard to improve her shot and she’s shooting the three at a strong percentage this season… Bria works very hard to prove she can handle anything and play against anyone. I probably challenge her most and she often aces those challenges.”

The Lancers were still white-knuckling the lead at the end of the third, up 39-37 after a highly-defensive third quarter, but Clovis West was ultimately able to pull away to a 59-49 lead to defeat the Lancers in the first game. 

In the second round of competition, the Lancers faced off against Anchorage Christian of Alaska. After a highly competitive first quarter, the Lancers were trailing 16-14, but Anchorage Christian was really able to break things open in the second. Going into halftime, they were up 29-19. 

Struggling to play as aggressively as they had in the first round, the Lancers’ struggles continued into the third quarter, where Anchorage Christian was able to press the Lancers to speed up the game. Salpointe didn’t have an answer to slow things down, and by the end of three, the Lancers were trailing 40-26. Going into the fourth, the game already felt out of reach as the Lancers limped to a 56-34 loss. 

With little time to lick their wounds, the team took the court the following day to face off against Xavier College Prep, a solid team in the AIA’s 6A division. It was a great outing for the Lancers, who made a statement in the game from the beginning with a rejuvenated sense of aggressiveness. At the half, the Lancers were up 34-27. 

As the third quarter unfolded, a three from senior Kylee Callihan helped the Lancers find a groove as they were able to jump out to a 52-40 lead at the end of the third before stamping things closed with a final score of 65-50. 

“[Callihan] has been a leader for us since her sophomore season,” Luevano said. “I have to tell her to rest or it’s okay to take a day off to recover.”

The Lancers were hoping to build off the momentum, but unfortunately couldn’t pull it out in the fourth and final day of competition, dropping a close one to Westview High School of Tennessee, 64-62. 

Callihan’s efforts on the court were recognized over the weekend, as she was named to the Nike Tournament of Champions’ All-Tournament team for the John Anderson Bracket of competition. She finished the four-game stretch averaging 16.5 points per game, 4.5 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 3.2 steals. 

“She may only be five-foot-eight, but she’s a force to be reckoned with in the paint,” Luevano said. “One of her greatest strengths is her defense, and she’s become very comfortable guarding players who are bigger than her. She’s improved a lot on her physical and mental toughness in our weight room this off season.” 

Luevano said along with Callihan, Medina and senior Tessa Hastings are the foundation of last year’s success, and so much of what they’re able to accomplish on the court comes down to their contributions. 

“Tessa just makes anything she’s a part of better,” Luevano said. “She’s a worker, a leader and a communicator. Her incredible skill as a basketball player is just icing on the cake of a special person.” 

He also mentioned an upperclassmen who often gets overlooked on the court, senior Annika Arvayo, and how much she means to the squad. While Arvayo isn’t really a shooter, she’s an instrumental part in setting up offensive plays and is strong on defense. 

“[Arvayo] has no clue how great of an athlete she really is,” Luevano said. “She does so many things for us that don’t show up on a stat sheet. Being a multi-sport athlete absolutely has made her a stronger basketball player and she’s brought a lot of her winning experience in volleyball to our program.” 

Salpointe’s strength on the court this season was never really a question, knowing they’d be returning some of the top athletes from last year’s roster. What’s come as the biggest surprise, however, has been how explosive the youth on the roster has looked. 

Along with Williams, another freshman who made herself known over the weekend was Taliyah Henderson, who already has two college offers on the table. 

“[Henderson] is one of the most versatile and dynamic athletes I’ve ever seen,” Luevano said. “She’s just scratching the surface of what she can accomplish. She’s working very hard on developing her skills throughout the court and learning to apply them. She’s such a competition, she loves the game and wants to just keep improving.” 

Next week, the Lancers will face another tough test as they head to San Diego for the Gold Crown Tournament. Luevano believes the experience of playing in last week’s tournament taught them some valuable lessons heading into this week.

“I think it’s learning to be better teammates, developing our camaraderie, not allowing our highs to get too high and our lows to get too low,” Luevano said. “And lastly, learning from our mistakes in real time. We are learning that every single detail matters in order to compete at the highest levels. I also think we are learning how to trust each other more and more.”

For his upperclassmen on the team, he hopes the trip will help them gain more exposure, but either way, he knows his team will take away valuable lessons learned in the moment of competition as the Lancers push to make a return to the 4A State Championship this year. 

Photo credit: Salpointe Catholic girls basketball twitter

Brittany Bowyer is a freelance journalist who started her career as an intern for a small sports website back in 2015. Since then, she’s obtained her master’s degree in Sports Journalism from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU and is in her fourth year

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