Willow Canyon surprises Valley Vista for 3rd in tourney

The Willow Canyon boys basketball team celebrates placing third Dec. 29 at the Judy Dixon Boys Basketball Tournament at Greenway High School [Richard Smith/West Valley Preps]

Richard Smith
West Valley Preps

A rivalry which used to pack both schools’ gyms in Surprise was revived for one night only – about 16 miles to the east.

Semifinal losses brought the Valley Vista and Willow Canyon boys basketball together for the first time since January 2016. It made for a more-intriguing-than-typical third place game Saturday night in the Judy Dixon Boys Basketball Tournament at Greenway High School in Phoenix.

Valley Vista is in the midst of the best season in school history. But the upstart Wildcats took control of a close game with a 13-0 third quarter run, holding off the Monoon for a 68-59 win.

“It’s three miles down the road. These boys live in the same neighborhoods and go to different schools regardless of where they live. So it’s important,” Willow Canyon coach Joseph Colletti said. “In the big picture, we’re just happy that they put a consistent effort on the floor. Coach Isai is a great coach and what they’re building over there is outstanding. So for us, it’s a feather in the cap. I think they’re a really good team. Hopefully we can build from this.”

As Colletti mentoned, Valley Vista (10-6) has harnessed its considerable potential in its first season under Ben Isai. The program sports one winning season in its previous 11, a 14-11 mark under Adrian Orona in 2013-14.

Orona left for the new Canyon View High School after six seasons as head coach, allowing JV coach and longtime local club coach Isai to put his stamp on the program.

His approach has clicked with the Monsoon’s senior core of Josh Holloway, Josiah Jackson, Sidney-Michael Thomas and King Thurman. Saturday night, Thurman led the Monsoon with 16 points and was named to the all-tournament team.

“I’ve known some of these kids for a long time. We’ve gotten the kids to believe in a structure. We’re moving the ball around and the team is learning that the can do a lot more together,” Isai said.

Valley Vista led 35-32 at the half thanks to Thurman’s long-range marksmanship and nine points and seven rebounds inside from junior Curtis Nichols. Junior Sunday John led the Wildcats with 10.

Another Thurman three and a free throw stretched the lead to 39-32, at which point Willow Canyon came alive. More to the point, freshman reserve guard Pike Tancil came alive.

He scored five straight points – including an and-one – to start the 13-0 run. After Valley Vista battled back to tie with a Jackson three and a Thomas and-one, Tancil hit a trey to stretch the lead back to 52-45.

Colletti said Tancil is far beyond his years in his approach to the game and work ethic. Those traits are now starting to show up in varsity games.

“Mentally, he’s like a college sophomore. He understands the game at a high level. The kid has a chance to be incredibly special and it’s because of his work ethic,” Colletti said.

Valley Vista closed to within three but Willow Canyon senior KJ Patrick kept them at arm’s length the rest of the way. Patrick led all scorers with 24, scored his 1,000th career varsity point during the game and was part of the all-tourney team.

Both teams nearly made this the tournament final before close losses Friday. Valley Vista fell 54-53 to Ironwood, while Paradise Valley squeaked past Valley Vista 47-43.

While not the capacity crowd the matchup would have attracted in Surprise, this game had a different atmosphere than a typical tournament consolation contest.

“We wanted to win this. Coach Colletti does a great job. He scouted and saw what weaknesses we had. And we fell into the trap,” Isai said.

Valley Vista still picked up plenty of positives at Greenway, beating a pair of top 4A teams and pushing 5A contender Ironwood to the brink.

“We grew and bonded as a team. We didn’t execute today. We had a tougher road, playing Moon Valley, Peoria and Ironwood,” Isai said. “We’ll go back to practice and prepare a little harder.”

The tourney could be transformative for a Willow Canyon team that started the year 3-8, including four regular season losses to teams ranked in the top 12 of 5A.

Colletti saw a different level of effort in a Dec. 14 upset of Independence and that has carried over through winter break.

“Their effort is starting to click. Their focus is starting to click. Whether we won game or lost games this week, their effort was outstanding. That’s where we can start to build something,” Colletti said. “I couldn’t be more pleased with their effort tonight, battling through adversity. A couple of kids got injured and KJ was cramping in the last minute-and-a-half, Sunday rolled an ankle and Jason (Hayes) turned an ankle five days ago. We’ll have a much-needed five days off now.”

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