GLENDALE, Ariz. – Around Christmas time, the Paradise Valley boys basketball team hit a rough patch that senior Paul Watson attributed to poor team chemistry.
“It just wasn’t meshing,” Watson said of a stretch that reached its low point when the team fell to Gilbert Perry 58-26 at the Holiday Hoops Classic in Prescott Valley. “It wasn’t jelling together.”
Fellow senior Ryan Finley wasn’t as vague in his assessment of the Trojans’ struggles.
“I could probably blame a lot of it on me for not bringing the team together as I should as a senior,” he said.
So the team sat down for a long meeting and hashed out its issues. They haven’t resurfaced in 2013. The Trojans’ lone loss in February came to Phoenix Sunnyslope, a loss they avenged in the state semifinals.
On Saturday at Jobing.com Arena, Paradise Valley (26-7) was tested by a physical Tucson Salpointe club that was chasing its first title despite several close calls. Multiple times in the second half, the Lancers (23-11) narrowed the gap to two possessions, but every time they did, Watson and Finley were there to answer the bell.
The senior duo combined for 33 points (Watson had 20) as Paradise Valley captured the Division II state title with a blue-collar 45-39 win. It was the first title for the program since 1995.
“It was a physical game, very physical,” said coach Mark MacGowan, who graduated from Paradise Valley in 1984. “We were lucky to make a few baskets and hit our free throws. They gave us all we could handle.”
The Trojans looked like they might run away with the game in the early stages, building double-digit leads in the first half, but some sloppiness with the ball (15 turnovers) allowed Salpointe to get back within striking distance early in the third period, and the Trojans could never quite shake the Lancers the rest of the way.
On the flip side, Salpointe never did overtake Paradise Valley. Watson hit a fadeaway jumper from the lane, then connected on a reload jumper just inside the free-throw line. When Salpointe closed within two possessions, Finley drove the lane and converted a tough three-point play that brought the Paradise Valley crowd to its feet.
Watson then finished off the Lancers with a driving runner before embracing his teammate at half-court as the two mugged for photos.
“My coach just told me, ‘Whenever you feel like you need to take over the game, go ahead,'” Watson said. “I’ll do whatever it takes for my teammates to get a win.”
Wins may be harder to come by for Paradise Valley without Watson and Finley around. Watson will play at Fresno State next season; Finley, who was the football team’s quarterback, will head to Boise State on a football scholarship.
“It feels amazing to leave on top,” Finley said. “I’m so proud of everybody — the coaches and the program. You can’t ever imagine what this is going to feel like. You think you can, but then it’s way more amazing than what you thought it would be.”