State’s No. 1 girls team wins in the top division at nationally prestigious Nike Tournament of Champions in Arizona with come-from-behind win over first-ever Oklahoma finalist. The Eagles also set up potential No. 1 vs. No. 2 clash vs. Sierra Canyon at end of next week. Cathedral Catholic of San Diego won the title in the second-best division and did it in a matchup of two top 10 California-ranked squads.
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PHOENIX – When Daisia Mitchell was sidelined for all but three games during the spring season with a broken leg, the Etiwanda High senior continued to gain inspiration during her recovery by envisioning moments like she experienced Wednesday.
When Aliyahna “Puff” Morris was making the transition from competing at the junior high level to joining the state’s top-ranked girls basketball team as its freshman point guard, she was likely motivated by the opportunities the Eagles would have to face some of the elite programs in the country, just like they did in the Joe Smith Division final at the 24th Nike Tournament of Champions.
And when sophomore Kennedy Smith welcomed the presence of a strong supporting cast, in order to make Etiwanda a more balanced lineup this season, she was able to celebrate the success of the entire group in a thrilling showdown of unbeatens against Classen School of Advanced Studies from Oklahoma.
Facing a six-point deficit with less than three minutes remaining, Etiwanda rallied behind a 3-pointer from tournament MVP Mitchell, a layup and a pair of free throws from Smith, plus an additional free throw from Morris to secure a 53-51 victory at Desert Vista High.
“I can’t explain how proud I am of them. This team is special and they’re going to do some special things this year,” said Eagles coach Stan Delus, whose team forced three turnovers in the final two minutes and stopped Classen on its final five offensive possessions.
“This Etiwanda team is here, and they’re young and they don’t even really know sometimes all the great things that they are doing. They don’t even understand the magnitude of the things they are accomplishing at such a young age.”
In addition to the Eagles, who were No. 1 in the state in the most recent Cal-Hi Sports’ State Top 25, the Joe Smith Division of the Nike TOC also included No. 3 La Jolla Country Day, No. 4 Corona Centennial, No. 5 Mater Dei of Santa Ana and No. 6 St. Mary’s of Stockton.
After scoring the game’s first basket, Etiwanda (9-0) surrendered the next 13 points and trailed for more than 30 minutes, surpassing its cumulative deficit from the previous eight games combined.
It was a significant contrast to Tuesday’s semifinal contest against Valley Vista High, when Etiwanda was dominant from the outset, limiting the top team from Arizona to 1 of 38 shooting during the first three quarters on its way to a 59-21 victory.
Classen presented a more formidable challenge for the Eagles by building a 35-24 halftime advantage, with Baylor commit Darianna Littlepage-Buggs leading the Comets (10-1) with 27 points and 16 rebounds, and senior guard Jordan Harrison adding 12 points to both earn all-tournament honors.
But Etiwanda began to chip away at a 10-point deficit in the final five minutes, with Destiny Agubata, Sa’lah Hemingway, and Majesty Cade all providing significant contributions at both ends of the floor, allowing all-tournament selections Morris and Smith, in addition to the USC-bound Mitchell to help the Eagles seize the momentum down the stretch.
“I just told them to keep it under 10 and to keep fighting. And in every huddle, we were talking about how we needed to keep showing our heart. I felt like if we were able to get it down to six, then it gave us a shot and we just kept believing,” Delus said. “And once we were able to get a few turnovers out of the press, then it gave us some confidence. I just encouraged them to stay locked in and to keep fighting until there were zeroes (on the clock), and as long as we did that, then we could say we left everything on the floor.”
Mitchell, who finished with nine points and scored 39 in four tournament games, hit one of the biggest 3-pointers of her career to cut the deficit to 51-48 with 2:05 left. Smith followed with a blocked shot and converted a layup at the other end to pull Etiwanda within one, then gave the Eagles a 52-51 lead after making two free throws with 44 seconds remaining to finish with 19 points.
“It was kind of hard staying calm, because it was such a big crowd and everything, but we practice for these moments all the time. Even though we’re young, we still have that composure because we’ve all played up (in older divisions) our entire lives, so we know what we’re doing,” said Smith, who led Etiwanda with 53 tournament points.
“I live for this,” she continued. “Last year, I was kind of more of a big (scorer) on the team, but now that we have a whole bunch of scorers this year, it doesn’t have to depend on me. We can all be together and come together and that’s what makes us a great team.”
Morris, who demonstrated maturity beyond her years to become the only freshman to earn all-tournament recognition in the top two divisions, increased Etiwanda’s lead with 11 seconds left after sinking a free throw.
Classen, the only Oklahoma program ever to reach the Joe Smith Division final in Nike TOC history, had one final possession, but a 3-point attempt by Micah Grey from the left wing misfired as time expired.
“There was a lot going on at the end. I’m just happy we could come out here and get the win. We were down by 10 and it was a tough win. I’m just glad we got it done,” Morris said. “We’re getting better every game and everybody is improving, and today we showed that we just wanted it more than the other team.”
Perhaps no athlete wanted it more than Mitchell, whose leadership off the court continued to benefit Etiwanda during its run to the Southern California Division 1-AA regional final in June, before she returned this season to provide a calming presence for the Eagles during competition.
“It means a lot. When I got hurt, it felt like there was this huge weight on my heart, because basketball is my entire life,” Mitchell said. “I’m in the gym every day, I watch basketball, I play basketball and I live for the game, and when that was taken away from me, I didn’t know what to do with myself. Coach Stan was trying to help me and trying to pick me up and make sure I was staying locked into the game and still being there for my teammates and that I was still able to be a leader on and off the court.”
Delus said the championship was more meaningful because of Mitchell’s contributions, knowing what an emotional challenge it was for his captain during her recovery in order to be ready to compete again in November.
“I feel like when we’re in situations like this, there always has to be that one person who has a cool head and I know I need to be there for my teammates,” Mitchell said. “Coach Stan’s biggest philosophy is defense. We go over defense for the majority of our practices just for moments like this. We keep fighting and we keep going until the end. I feel like preparing for all that time since August for this one moment is what made us who we are today.”
Etiwanda, which opened the season by winning the Redondo Battle at the Beach with a 55-49 victory Nov. 27 against La Jolla Country Day, will have an opportunity to capture a third tournament title before the end of the year at the Gold Crown Holiday Tipoff in Chula Vista.
And Delus is excited about a potential No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown against Sierra Canyon (11-0) in the Dec. 30 championship game.
“We’ve tested ourselves two tournaments in a row and we needed this. We needed to find more adversity, so when we go into next week, if we both take care of business, it can be an unbelievable matchup,” Delus said. “We’ve had some epic games over the last couple of years, us and Sierra Canyon, and these are the games that are fun to me. I’m that guy who wants to play everybody and I’m sure (Sierra Canyon coach Alicia Komaki) wants to play us. She’s got a great team and we’ve got a great team, and it’s probably an early test of what we’re going to see in the playoffs.”
Other California athletes to earn all-tournament honors in the Joe Smith Division included Londynn Jones of Corona Centennial, Jordan Lee of Stockton St. Mary’s and Jada Williams of La Jolla Country Day.
Jones led all tournament scorers with 90 points in four games, Lee had 73 total points and Williams accumulated 63 points overall. La Jolla Country Day teammate Breya Cunningham had the best single-game performance in the division with 37 points Dec. 20 in an 81-65 victory against St. Mary’s.
John Anderson Division final
Cathedral Catholic 55, Clovis West 47
Just before tipoff in Wednesday’s final, Clovis West of Fresno head coach Craig Campbell emphasized the importance of containing Cathedral Catholic of San Diego senior Isuneh “Ice” Brady.
The Golden Eagles made division MVP Brady, a Connecticut signee, work hard to earn all 10 of her points, but it was fellow seniors Itzel “Izzy” Navarro and Taryn Johnson who stepped up to carry the Dons’ offense, combining for 34 points to both earn all-tournament honors at Desert Vista High.
The contest also matched teams that were No. 8 (Clovis West) and No. 9 (Cathedral Catholic) in the most recent Cal-Hi Sports State Top 25 rankings.
“Taryn was huge for us in the semifinal game and hit some big shots, and today she and Izzy just flipped roles and they both stepped up,” Cathedral Catholic coach Jackie Turpin said. “We keep a lot of things internal and we don’t worry about the outside noise, but we know what we have here, and we know what they can do, and it’s fun when other people get to see that.”
Cathedral Catholic (8-2), which has won six in a row since splitting its first four games at the Redondo Battle at the Beach, became the only team to capture another division title at Nike TOC after also winning a championship at the 2019 event.
The Dons prevailed against Fremont High of Nebraska in the Mike Desper Division final two years ago, with Brady also earning MVP honors, but their experience was showcased against a higher level of competition to knock off previously unbeaten Clovis West (10-1).
“I have five seniors and we should play with some maturity and togetherness, and have some understanding of where each other are at. There is a level of trust on that floor, and I love seeing them work together on the offensive end and the defensive end,” Turpin said. “We’ve had some really tough tests early, which is good, and I think that’s how you build a championship team. But we didn’t get the outcome early that we wanted, so coming into another four-game set with tired legs and battling through and finding a way to win a couple of tough games is huge, and that was definitely the case these last two games.”
Brady finished with 62 tournament points, the Loyola Marymount-bound Navarro scored 59 and Johnson, a Houston commit, contributed 58 in four games for Cathedral Catholic.
Etoyah Montgomery led Clovis West with 20 points and Michaela Young contributed 10 points, all in the second half, to both earn all-tournament honors for the Golden Eagles, who surrendered a 7-0 run to start the game and never led the entire contest.
Montgomery accumulated 64 tournament points and Young scored 47 for the Golden Eagles, who were appearing in their first Nike TOC championship game since winning the Joe Smith Division title in 2017.
Clovis West advanced to the final with a 64-47 victory over Rosary Academy, which had sophomore Allison Clarke earn all-tournament recognition after the Royals lost 51-49 on a buzzer beater to Humble Summer Creek of Texas in Wednesday’s third-place game.
Skye Belker of Windward (Los Angeles) was also a division all-tournament selection, scoring 29 points in a 62-55 victory Wednesday over Cooper High of Lubbock, Texas in a consolation game. Belker finished with 77 overall for the event.
Mike Desper Division final
Carondelet (Concord) 58, St. Ignatius (SF) 57
Talana Lepolo had 17 points, including a clutch free throw in the final minute, and fellow senior Nya Epps added 16 points for the Cougars (7-0) in the come-from-behind win at Marcos de Niza High. Sophomore Kate Kostolonsky added 11 points for Carondelet, which rallied from a 55-43 deficit entering the fourth quarter.
Soon Ja Elzey led St. Ignatius (8-1) with 21 points and fellow senior Sabrina Ma added 16 points. The Wildcats, who were limited to two fourth-quarter points, also received 12 points from senior Amalia Ennis.
Epps led Carondelet with 23 points in a 65-42 semifinal victory over Desert Vista of Arizona. Ma scored 26 points to help St. Ignatius advance to the final with a 53-40 win against Konawaena of Hawaii.
Dan Wiley Division final
Bishop O’Dowd (Oakland) 44, Seton Catholic (Arizona) 34
Senior Emma Mathai scored 12 points and sophomore Savannah Jones added 11 points for the Dragons (6-0) at McClintock High.
Senior Amaya Bonner also scored 10 points for Bishop O’Dowd, which advanced to the championship game with a 48-47 semifinal victory over Liberty High of Nevada.
Derril Kipp Division final
Caruthers 53, Sunrise Mountain (Arizona) 52
Junior Morgan Triguiero had 24 points, including six 3-pointers, and senior Krisalyn Turman added 12 points for the Blue Raiders (9-2) at Tempe High. Junior Anisa Torres also contributed eight points, including a pair of free throws late in the fourth quarter for Caruthers, which rallied from a 32-26 halftime deficit.
Erik Boal has covered high school sports in California for 25 years, formerly serving as editor at the Glendale News-Press and Los Angeles Daily News. He is currently the editor for DyeStat.com and RunnerSpace.com, which focus on track and field, cross country and road racing, but has been a regular attendee at major Southern California high school sports events since the early 2000s.