Millennium rolled to a chance for its third 5A state consecutive title, as the visiting #3 Tigers defeated the #2 Verrado Vipers 47-24 in the semifinals on Wednesday night.
Sprilling their two early season meetings, the Tigers and Vipers played defensive battles, with Millennium scoring just 40 and 28 in the two contests. The Tigers were hot from the gate though in the March 17 semifinal, attacking the rim and either drawing shot fouls or kicking out to perimeter shooters. Forced turnovers and missed shots at the rim allowed the quick Tigers to run in transition and get opportunities near Verrado’s basket.
They scored 20 in the first quarter - including nine by sophomore guard Mia Amundsen - and had 30 at the half in an offensive outburst unlike they had seen in prior games.
“Starting off well on offense was definitely an advantage but playing the way we did defensively led us to that offense, which led us to that big lead,” Amundsen said.
Millennium (14-4) will face #5 Tucson Flowing Wells (15-3) on Saturday in the 5A title game at Mesquite High School in Gilbert. The Caballeros defeated the #8 Gilbert Tigers, 51-41, in the other semifinal game. Millennium boasts a seven-game win streak heading into the 5A championship.
In what has become nearly an annual ritual, the Tigers are just 32 game minutes away from hoisting their third straight 5A trophy.
“We’re going to a third one, and I couldn’t be any more proud of these girls,” said senior guard Kassidy Dixon, Millennium's only returning starter from 2020.
Though the destination is the same the route to get to this point was different than years past. Millennium played a rare road playoff game after being the top seed in the last two postseasons. It is also still Kevin Thomas’s first year as coach after Courtland Rojeck moved to Ohio.
But Dixon said she knew deep down that the Tigers would be back in this position, regardless of the new circumstances.
“If you have any doubt you’re not going to make it far. I believed in this team from day one. I knew we had something special, and we have grit and are going to go ‘til that last buzzer sounds in the championship game,” she said.
And beside the thrill of reaching the another state final, Millennium’s victory on Wednesday served as revenge for the result in the teams’ last contest.
The two split a pair of games in the regular season. A 31-28 Verrado victory in the previous meeting cost the Tigers a region title and played a part in dropping them to a relatively-low #3 seed in the playoffs.
After a decisive victory, though, it was clear Millennium could claim bragging rights in the matchup, at least for this year.
“It felt good. All of us kind of took it personally last time. We know we’re better than what we had been playing them, and coming out the way we did today is what we planned for and what we need to do at state,” Amundsen said.
After the half, the Tigers slowed the game’s pace, scoring just seven in the third quarter and ten more in the fourth. Rather than frantically moving the ball in transition, the Tigers would probe and make passes back out until they felt they had the right moment to attack.
Dixon methodically dribbled into the lane to draw fouls. She shot 12 free throws in the game, hitting nine. The lead never shrunk lower than double digits and the outcome was never in question.
“The reason we had driving lanes was because of the big first quarter because we were able to spread them out, hold the ball, force them to honor the clock and up the pressure a little bit,” Thomas said.
“When we are fortunate enough to get a lead like that, a team has to apply some pressure, and when they do that she (Dixon) can really change the outcome and take over to solidify our lead.”
And while the offense slowed, Millennium kept up its defensive production, allowing just 24 total points to a Viper team that has become notoriously stronger in fourth quarters this season.
The talented Tiger guards and wings, such as Amundsen, Dixon and freshman Elli Guiney hindered much of the Vipers’ penetration. And despite a height disadvantage, Millennium protected the rim and rebounded well to finish its many defensive stops.
Millennium ran down the clock at the end and Verrado could not make it very close. Thomas said he was proud of the girls for their effort to play well against one of the conference’s most talented squads.
“They were just so tough at the end, I’m really excited for them,” he said.