West Valley Preps
TEMPE – This young Millennium boys basketball team is ready to run – already.
In a week, the Tigers are poised to take the final step.
Despite starting three sophomores and two juniors, #6 seed Millennium boys basketball (22-6) played like veterans in the second half of Monday’s 5A semifinal at Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe.
Facing a more experienced Apollo team, the Tigers built a 30-25 halftime lead to a 53-38 bulge after three with a blend of defense, unselfish play and smart decision making. Millennium weathered the Hawks late press for a 72-61 victory and a spot in the Feb. 25 final.
“These are a bunch of babies – they’re so young. But they’re ultra talented. These two guys (DaRon Holmes and Justus Jackson) can handle it, they can shoot and score at all three levels. Then you have guys like (junior) Jose Cotres hitting threes. Overall, it was a great team win,” Millennium boys basketball coach Ty Amundsen said.
Millennium makes a return trip to Tempe in a week to face #1 Gilbert (28-1) in the 8 p.m. final on the Sun Devils’ court. Gilbert beat Millennium 64-53 on Dec. 15 in the East Valley Tigers’ gym.
Nothing in the last week suggests this team will be overwhelmed by the big stage.
In the last week, they have survived a spirited first round test from Scottsdale Desert Mountain (64-56) and escaped a lion’s den at No. 3 Ironwood (23-5) Friday.
Before a packed house in Glendale, the Tigers withstood the Eagles’ late rally. They survived 60-59 when a lane violation with 1.3 seconds left wiped out the tying free throw.
After that, this squad feels ready to face anything.
“We had heard Ironwood beat Apollo and Apollo beat Ironwood. So it was great to beat Ironwood. It gave us a confidence boost. We didn’t think we deserved that 6 seed,” Holmes said.
It also help when one of those sophomores (Holmes) is 6-9 with guard skills and the recruiting attention of several major colleges – ASU coach Bobby Hurley was courtside to witness his 21-point, 14-rebound, 5-block performance.
#2 Apollo (25-4) got a matching performance from its star, 6-7 forward Emmanuel Taban. The sweet-shooting big man completed two rare four-point plays in the second half en route to a game high 23.
But Millennium doubled the Hawks’ big gun frequently and will take his 7-for-18 shooting night, particularly considering none of his teammates scored in double figures.
“They did a great job on him. We knew we were going to have our hands full, but we had it well scouted,” Amundsen said.
Conversely, Amundsen’s team received contributions across the board, starting with its on-court director Justus Jackson.
The point guard and other star sophomore struggled from the field (4-14) but helped the Tigers sprint ahead during a 23-point third quarter.
Jackson repeatedly penetrated and dished to teammates filling the lane, or set up a 2-on-1 situation against the Hawks’ press.
“It was great, man. They told me to get it down the floor and I just had to look up,” Jackson said.
For most of the second half, guards Michael Batchelor and Coleman Fields were the ones finishing the layups.
Batchelor had six of his 13 points in the third quarter. Fields added nine of his 12 points in the second half.
“Those guys are our glue guys. They know Justus and DaRon are going to get the ball and a lot of shots. But those guys are just as important. They do all the other stuff – the defense and rebounding,” Amundsen said.
Millennium led by 17 late in the third before Apollo made a run with its program staples – pressure defense and offensive rebounding.
Sophomore wing Paris Woods jumped the passing lane and drove for a layup to cut the deficit to 53-45 with 6:14 left.
The Hawks could not get any closer. Holmes and Jackson hit six of six free throws.
And the big man provided the exclamation point on his dunk with 1:24 left.
“Everybody says we’re young and stuff, but at this point we’re pretty experienced. Last year was a big learning curve. This year we’re more ready,” Jackson said.