Work the paint. Rattle the rim. Kiss the glass. Ghost the baseline. Snap the nets. Hoist the hardware!
Raising the state championship trophy is something the Lady Sand Devils have become quite accustomed to doing. This was the second year in a row they’ve been crowned 3A Division state champions, and the third time they’ve done it in the last five years.
The Sand Devils played the Holbrook Roadrunners in the championship game, after first eliminating Florence, Tuba City and Winslow. This year marked the first time the Holbrook’s girls team has played in a championship game. Both teams came into Saturday’s game with a 26-4 season record. The Sand Devils were seeded No. 2 and the Roadrunners were seeded No. 4.
Before the game even began exuberant fans on both sides had Gila River Arena shaking like a washing machine on spin cycle, which repeated after every exciting play.
The Roadrunners controlled the tip-off but junior post-player Camryn Nockideneh stole the ball and returned it to the other end of the court and laid it in for the game’s first two points. Nockideneh followed up two plays later with two more points off a Myka Taliman assist. A few plays later sophomore post-player Torrance Begay put back a missed Sand Devils shot for two more points. This was followed by a three-point shot by senior center, Amy Yellowman, which gave the Sand Devils a 9-3 lead with four minutes expired in the game.
After that the Sand Devils’ offense struggled: Missed shots. Turnovers. Sloppy passes. It was the last points the Sand Devils would score for nearly eight minutes. Fortunately, their defense was mostly successful in preventing the Roadrunners from reaching the basket. The Sand Devils led 9-5 at the end of the first quarter.
Freshman guard, Miquedah Taliman – who would go on to become the game’s leading scorer – broke the Sand Devils scoreless streak when she hit an outside jump shot, which came nearly halfway through the second quarter.
Holbrook immediately answered back with a basket of their own.
A few plays later Nockideneh added to the Sand Devils lead when she hit two free throws. Nockideneh’s precision from the free throw line was one of the key factors in the Sand Devils championship victory.
With more offensive contributions from Yellowman and Miquedah Taliman the Sand Devils maintained a five point lead, which they took with them into the half, leading 16-11.
Page’s offense again struggled to get traction in the first half of the third quarter, which allowed the Roadrunners to pull to within two points. It was the closest Holbrook would get to tying the game or taking the lead. The third quarter ended with what can only be called a Benally Rally. Senior guard, Mikala Benally, went on a six point scoring drive, which included a steal she returned to her basket. The Sand Devils led 26-20 going into the final quarter of the season.
The Roadrunners got within three points in the fourth quarter’s opening minutes, but then, as has happened all season long, the better-conditioned Sand Devils just flew past the flagging Roadrunners.
The Sand Devils continued their full-court pressure, which they used throughout the game, and offensively the scoring was spread out evenly between Nockideneh, Benally and Miquedah Taliman.
The Roadrunners had the opportunity to win the game from the free throw line but they shot less than 25 percent from the line all night, including the front end of many one and one shots.
With Miquedah at the free throw line with 1:05 left on the clock and a seven point lead, girls basketball head coach Ryan Whitehorse took out his starters and replaced them with his second team, which included Meagan Fuller, normally one of the team’s starting players. Fuller, a senior, has been a starter since her freshman year, but has been on the bench the last two weeks with a broken finger.
As the perfect cap to a near-perfect season, Fuller hit the final bucket of the championship game, a three-pointer from the corner. As radio commentator, The Candyman, put it after the game, “That’s mic-drop time!”
The Sand Devils won their second championship in a row 46-33.
This year marked the third time in five years the Lady Sand Devils have brought home the state title. They brought home the trophy in 2015 under Coach Justin Smith. The next year failed to make it to the championship, but they finished in the Elite Eight.
Coach Whitehorse took over the program the following year, and has done an excellent job continuing its winning tradition and further building it into a dynasty. Coach Whitehorse has won 81 games and lost only 12 games during his three years as head coach and has taken his team to state all three years. His first year his team lost the state championship by a single point to Valley Christian.
There’s a very good chance the Lady Sand Devils dynasty will continue. They have several talented players from this year returning next year. Miquedah Taliman, Camryn Nockideneh, Ashlyn Adakai, Neve Redhair, Diana Secody, Melinda Calnimptewa and Torrance Begay will all be returning next year. In fact, it could be argued that the second best team in the 3A North this year was the Sand Devils’ second squad.
Coach Whitehorse has been with many of his players since his first year as head coach.
“This is a special group of girls,” he said. “They looked at me my first and wondered, `What does this guy have.”
Coach Whitehorse is proud of his team, and their heart and work ethic he said after the game Saturday.
“”Last year, after we won the title, we were in shock,” he said. “This year, at the beginning of the season I told the girls we had a 90 percent chance of winning it again. It was theirs to win or lose from the beginning.”
Coach Whitehorse said his team perhaps made their winning season look easier than it really was.
“We had a lot of obstacles to overcome this year,” he said, “and that made this win all the more special.”
Stats weren’t yet available at this printing. The Lake Powell Chronicle will include them, along with more photos, in Wednesday’s newspaper.