West Valley Preps
Glendale rivals Apollo and Ironwood lost four starters to graduation after doing battle three times in 2016-17, twice in region play and once in the 5A quarterfinals.
So the inconsistency and at times lack of basketball instincts Friday night was to be expected with underclassmen in bunches on the floor.
One thing did not change. Apollo eventually pulled past a battling Ironwood squad thanks to relentless pressure defense, winning this season’s first meeting 62-54.
“We try to build our foundation on the defensive end. We knew we have some young guys and we weren’t going to be as good offensively. So we have to hang out hat on being a defensive-minded team,” Apollo coach Jacob Marin said.
Both teams were particularly stingy in a first half that ended tied at 22. Apollo senior wing Emmanuel Taban sank two free throws to tie it with a second left and led all players with eight points before halftime.
A brief burst by sophomore guard Dominic Gonzalez, including back-to-back three point shots, gave the Eagles a 30-25 lead. It was short lived thanks to threes by junior Gabriel Nyawumenya and freshman Paris Woods.
Woods then added a two. Ironwood fans were having flashbacks in the second half, as the younger brother of Holland Woods — now at Portland State — poured in all 11 of his points.
The Hawks built their lead to eight in the quarter until Ironwood senior forward Ajang Aguek dropped in a rainbow trey at the buzzer. Apollo was up 43-38 after three.
The host maintained its advantage throughout the fourth quarter, though Ironwood junior guard Malik Smith tried his best to keep his team in it.
Smith broke away and threw down a dunk before Taban could block it from behind. Now the Eagles trailed only by two, 47-45.
Two Apollo baskets restored order, though Smith emerged again with a three and it was 51-48.
The visitors could not get any closer, as Marin’s team made its free throws and used its trademark four corners offense to bleed time off the clock.
Ironwood (9-9 overall) dropped to 1-3 in the once-again brutal Metro Region. Gonzalez led all scorers with 17 while Smith chipped in 12.
In addition to Woods, Taban (15 points) and junior wing Tramane Lee (14 points) finished in double figures for Apollo.
The Hawks may not resemble the 2016-17 runner up in 5A, but at 11-8 overall and a promising 3-0 in the Metro. Marin said they can be a threat with better situational awareness like knowing where to be when a teammate gets trapped or paying attention to scouting reports on what hand an opponent likes to dribble with.
“I like where we’re at right now in the region. Every game in this region is extremely hard,” Marin said. “We’ve got to continue to pay attention to the smallest of details and finished games better. We had a chance to close that one out and let some opportunities go away and then it was tight until the finish.”