West Valley Preps
TEMPE – Millennium girls basketball “got big” in the final 16 minutes of their biggest game.
Now the Tigers have that big state title win they’ve been pushing for the last six seasons.
Top seed Millennium (27-4) overwhelmed No. 2 Gilbert (25-6) in the second half, outscoring the East Valley’s Tigers 41-20 to emphatically win its first state title. Junior center Ali Zelaya scored 18 of her game-high 21 after halftime of the 66-40 5A finals victory.
“We came out with so much intensity that it gave me positive energy. Everyone was working hard and that was our reward. It was fun out there, especially when we were knocking down our shots,” Zelaya said.
Millennium took over the game in the third quarter, starting with a 12-2 run as their lead bulged to 37-22. Zelaya came alive with seven points during that run.
Her post tag-team partner of three years, senior forward Alaina Diggs, was a steady counterpart. She finished with 11 points and eight rebounds.
“We needed to move Ali around a bit. Paul’s a great coach and if we had Ali in the paint, they were going to double her. So we put Alaina down low, which we knew would be a different look,” Millennium coach Courtland Rojeck said.
Rojeck said that Gilbert, powered by its star twins Hailey and Hanna Cavinder, wanted to run as much as possible. They did in the second quarter.
Millennium star senior guard Dominique Phillips picked up her second foul a minute into the second quarter, and Gilbert went on a 10-2 run in the nearly five minutes Phillips was on the bench.
Most of that was driven, as expected, by the Cavinder sisters.
After halftime, the Millennium girls managed to make it a half-court battle.
“We definitely focused on getting back to our pace. In the second quarter the ran us a bit and rushed our offense,” Diggs said.
Rojeck also said in the second half, his team went to its man-to-man offense even against the Gilbert zone. Moving the ball around seemed to energize his squad.
Gilbert made a four-point push late in the third thanks to its press. But freshman guard Trayanna Crisp answered with a pair of threes and the Tigers from Goodyear were home free.
“I’m not surprised anymore. We had a lot of seasoned veterans and a freshman that’s really good. It took her a couple weeks to get acclimated. But in the last month, sometimes she tended to hide and defer a bit. I told her this week not defer,” Rojeck said.
Phillips took over the first quarter, hitting a pair of treys and finishing the frame with an offensive rebound and driving scoop layup. She had 10 and the Millennium girls led 16-3 after one.
Phillips finished the night with 16 points, while Crisp added 11. Zelaya had 10 rebounds to lead all players.
The Fresno State-bound twin sisters combined for 12 points in each half. But their second half scoring could not keep pace with a Millennium team hitting on all cylinders.
Hanna Cavinder led her team with 13 points and five assists, while Hailey added 11 points. No other Gilbert player scores more than seven.
“These two girls are two of the best guards in the state. I watch on film and teams let them play. I told my team, rule No. 1 is these girls don’t get to play with the ball. They’re coming off screens, we double them,” Rojeck said. “In one game in the postseason they combined for 65. As a coach, I’m not afraid to swallow my pride and say treat these girls differently.”
Zelaya said this group is so close that everyone is trusted with their shot. Players expect it to go in and if it doesn’t, they crash the boards hard.
After a runner-up finish in 2017 and a semifinal loss in 6A in 2018, this veteran group did not start to celebrate until the game is well in hand.
“It didn’t hit us until the last two minutes. We were up by 20 and it blew us away. I don’t know how to react right now,” Phillips said. “We’ll always stay in contact. This year has really brought us together.”
Rojeck said he’s thrilled for this group of girls. But he’s also ready for a break from basketball.
He and his wife, Jocelyn, had a baby in January.
“I’m so proud of these girls, but I can’t wait to enjoy being a dad starting tomorrow,” Rojeck said.