2023-24 Boys Basketball

Sahuaro advances to 4A state championship with upset win over No. 1 ALA-Gilbert North

Sahuaro made all six of its free-throw attempts in the fourth quarter, including four by Cisco Llamas, and center Jamal Ali scored seven of his nine points in the period to lead the fourth-seeded Cougars to an upset 55-51 win over No. 1 ALA-Gilbert North in a 4A semifinal game at Gilbert on Monday night.

Sahuaro (24-4) advances to the 4A state championship game Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix against No. 3 Glendale Deer Valley (26-4).

The Skyhawks defeated host No. 2 Gilbert Mesquite 51-48 in the other semifinal game Monday.

Sahuaro has four state championships in school history, all won by the legendary coach Dick McConnell, with the last occurring in the 2000-01 season.

The Cougars are in position to win their first state title in 23 seasons thanks to the poise and playmaking ability of Llamas, a sophomore guard who is lightning quick both on his feet and mind.

“It feels amazing; I’m speechless,” Llamas said in a postgame interview with the NFHS Network. “I didn’t know if we could make it this far, but I’m proud of my team. I’m proud of my family and supporters. I want to thank all of them and God, too.”

Llamas, who finished with 12 points, avoided turnovers in the fourth quarter by dribbling around and through defenders and picking up fouls.

ALA-Gilbert North, which had the biggest lead of six points in the tight game, took a 47-42 lead early in the fourth quarter after a 3-pointer by Connor Morris.

Ali, a post player, extended beyond the arc and answered with a 3-pointer with 5:30 left to cut the lead to 47-45.

Sahuaro’s defense took over, forcing five of ALA-Gilbert North’s 14 turnovers in the fourth quarter. The Eagles also made only 2 of 11 shots from the field (1 of 6 from 3-point range) in the quarter.

Llamas’ two free throws with 4:12 left tied the game at 47.

Dylan Novak put ALA-Gilbert North back ahead with 3:39 remaining with a jumper.

Ali’s putback with 1:32 remaining tied the game at 49.

After a turnover by ALA-Gilbert North, Ponds, who led the Cougars with 13 points, drove the lane for a layup to put Sahuaro ahead with 1:00 left.

Another turnover by the Eagles, put Sahuaro in a position to win the game by converting free throws.

ALA-Gilbert North had three fouls to give to reach the bonus and that occurred with 26.9 seconds left, sending Ayumu Lara to the line. Lara swished both shots to give him 10 points and increase the lead to 53-49.

Owen Bell was fouled with 15.4 seconds left and converted both free throws for ALA-Gilbert North.

After Sahuaro nearly turned the ball over on the inbounds pass, it regained possession and called timeout.

Llamas was fouled after weaving through defenders with 9.4 seconds remaining. He also swished both free-throw attempts to make the game a two-possession affair.

“I was just trying to have them not take the ball,” Llamas said. “I was trying to do everything I can so I could take more time off the clock so I can hit my free throws at the end of the stretch.

“It was tough, tough for sure — the crowd was loud, but we knocked them down. I want to shout out to Ayumi, too. He also had clutch free throws at the end.”

After Llamas’ last two free throws, ALA-Gilbert North could not get off a shot before turning the ball and the final buzzer sounded soon thereafter.

Sahuaro’s players and coaches gathered in front of their bench to celebrate the program’s first trip to a state championship game since the 2000-01 team won it all.

Sahuaro coach Jim Henry is in his 14th season with finally the opportunity to reach the state championship game and take home a title. Henry served as an assistant coach under McConnell.

Henry has remarkably never endured a losing season in his tenure as head coach of the Cougars. His record at Sahuaro is 265-118.


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. He became an educator in 2016 and is presently a special education teacher at Sunnyside High School in the Sunnyside Unified School District.

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