West Valley Preps
TEMPE – The entire 5A boys basketball game Feb. 25 was played at Gilbert’s tempo.
Suddenly – at least as suddenly as this snail’s-paced game could move – it was Gilbert’s game and trophy.
The top seeded Tigers fell behind 30-18, then held No, 6 Millennium scoreless for more than eight minutes of play, taking a 32-30 lead. Gilbert controlled the final three minutes and crawled out of Wells Fargo Arena with a 38-37 victory and its first state title since 2003.
That team was coached by Tom Bennett, with current Gilbert coach Jay Caserio serving as an assistant. Caserio said his mentor recently had knee surgery and could not travel to ASU for the final.
“Everything I know about coaching and how to run a program is from Tom (Bennett),” Caserio said. “He probably wasn’t too proud watching the first two or three quarters. But somehow we got it done.”
By the end of the third quarter, Gilbert (29-1) cut its deficit to 30-23.
To that point Caserio’s leader, senior point guard Doc Self, had been quiet. He grabbed the spotlight with back-to-back three-point shots 40 seconds apart.
“He’s worked so hard and I’ve been so hard on Doc the last three or four years. He’s paid his dues at Gilbert High School, and traveled 40 minutes every single day to get here,” Caserio said.
Millennium (22-7) skill could not but a bucket. Gilbert junior Paul Maldonado made one free throw to tie, and senior forward Jake Ehmann’s stickback gave the top seed its first lead since the middle of the second quarter.
Sophomore point guard Justus Jackson hit a pull-up jumper with 2:50 remaining to break Millennium’s drought and tie the game at 32.
“I know we missed shots and had great looks. Nothing was falling,” Millennium coach Ty Amundsen said.
Amundsen said his other frustration was how the game was called, particularly in the final two minutes.
In his view, the game began to turn as Millennium piled up seven second-half fouls by early in the fourth quarter – while Gilbert entered the final minute with three fouls.
“It all started with Jalen Early’s layup where they called a push-off. He got slapped in the face and he was protecting his hand as he went up,” Amundsen said. “The guy from behind the play made the call. He’s the same guy that made the six straight calls.
“I’m telling you this right now because I know this, clear as day. Every play that was a 50-50 call or an overturned call came from one referee. Do me and him have a great history? No. He doesn’t like me and I don’t like him,” Amundsen said. “That’s the frustration. Why the AIA scheduled him in my state championship game is beyond me. They know about the history. On top of that, the seven films I watched of Gilbert, he was at five of those games. He knows that team.”
The one call that raised Amundsen’s ire more than any other came after Self fed senior senior forward Carson Towt for a dunk and 34-32 lead with 1:45 left.
Millennium lost possession and Gilbert inbounded in the back court. After the inbound play, the first pass the Tigers threw appeared to bounce out untouched.
However, the officials ruled that Gilbert had called time out while still in possession of the ball.
“The ball was bouncing and he said, ‘No, he was calling a time out before the ball was bouncing.’ It was pretty much out of bounds by the time he made that call,” Amundsen said. “So that one, the Jalen Early and one where they called a push-off was big. The moving screen on the play where the (Gilbert) kid got the dunk – he’s pushing DaRon all the way out to the elbow. Even on the last one, Coleman gets hit in the head and the referee says, ‘I didn’t see it.'”
Now his team had to foul. Gilbert sophomore guard Tampa Scott made three of four free throws. Down 37-32 with 24 seconds remaining, Millennium went quick.
Junior guard Michael Batchelor drew a foul and made his first free throw. Sophomore forward DaRon Holmes rebounded his second, laid it in and was fouled.
He missed his chance at a three-point play and his team quickly fouled. Maldonado made one of two for a 38-35 lead with 7.2 seconds left.
With only four team fouls, Gilbert could run the clock out without Millennium getting a good look. Amundsen’s team put of a double-clutch three, which sophomore guard Coleman Fields rebounded and laid in for the final points.
Now calmed down after the loss, Amundsen said his team missed a golden opportunity to lock up the championship – with a 12-point lead and 12 minutes left in the final.
“I don’t want to take it away from Gilbert. Their defense was great and that was the thing I was worried about. If the game was going to be in the 30s or 40s, we were going to lose,” Amundsen said. “They hold the ball so much, which is why we started trapping more.”
Both teams played stingy defense. Gilbert shot 32 percent from the field, while Millennium finished at 31 percent.
Ehmann was the only player in double figures, tallying 13 points to go with 13 rebounds. Caserio said in his only year in Gilbert, Ehmann is the Tigers’ most important player
“He moved in from Ohio when he was a senior. That’s tough to do. Our guys accepted him right away,” Caserio said. “He led us in scoring for every playoff game.”