St. Mary's pulls away for Division I three-peat
GLENDALE, Ariz -- After three straight state titles and 60 consecutive wins against in-state teams, it feels safe to call the Phoenix St. Mary's girl's basketball team an Arizona dynasty.
Knights coach Curtis Ekmark wasn't going near the 'D' word after his team's 49-37 win over Pinnacle in Saturday's Division I state championship game at Jobing.com arena, but his words said it for him.
"I'll leave that for other people to decide, but I'll tell you this: I couldn't imagine a better group of kids," Ekmark said. "I mean, to win their last 60 games against teams in state, to win a national championship (last season), to win three state championships -- maybe there's some other team that's better than that, but I don't know about 'em."
Hard to argue with that. But perhaps one of the biggest reasons St. Mary's has remained so successful -- appearing in the last four Division I state title games -- has been the team's ability to ignore any talk of its status as a powerhouse, dynasty or any other such characterization.
"We definitely try to stay humble," St. Mary's guard Dominique Williams said. "Coach talks about it all the time. There's always people talking about how we're not as good as we are or that we're great, but we just try to keep it in the family. Within our group, we really just try to stay humble and keep working hard, because at the next level, we're always preparing for something else."
While Ekmark has succeeded at keeping his team grounded, he admitted to straying from his team's true identity Saturday.
In the first half, Pinnacle used a slow, methodical approach to keep St. Mary's out of its deadly transition game. Ekmark played a part in it too, trying to get extra rest for a few banged-up players, and with his team down 26-20 at halftime, he realized his error and fixed it in the locker room.
"I apologized, because I kind of tried to outsmart ourselves in the first half, playing passive," Ekmark said. "We didn't want to gamble because we didn't want to give them 3s, but that's not how we play. I finally said, 'Look, we need to do what we do. We need to pressure people and we need to attack.' We played too slow in the first half."
Getting back to their signature aggressive, fast-paced style paid off immediately for the Knights, who began the second half on a 17-2 run, taking a lead they would never relinquish. Williams, a senior, finished with eight points and five rebounds while junior guard Courtney Ekmark led all scorers with 14 points.
Pinnacle's slow-it-down plan wasn't enough against St. Mary's in the second half, and Pinnacle began playing frantic, trying not to fall too far behind. The Knights led by as many as nine points in the third quarter before the Pioneers, led by senior Britta Nordstrom's 12 points and 10 rebounds, cut the deficit to four early in the fourth quarter.
"I am so proud of these girls," Pinnacle coach Troy Wiese said. "They could've just thrown the towel in, and a lot of teams might have. I am so proud that we didn't quit."
St. Mary's capitalized on Pinnacle' panicked play, scoring 30 points off 25 turnovers. Still, Ekmark credited the Pioneers with controlling the first half and putting his girls in a position they hadn't been in any time recently.
"They wanted the game to be slow, and it was," Ekmark said. "We finally just said, 'Look, we just need to take control and dictate the pace.'"
St. Mary's loses five seniors to graduation after this season, including four of five starters. How the next crop continues the Knights' dynasty is yet to be determined, but there's no doubt the group that won Saturday has been nothing short of the word.
"It took a lot of hard work, and we lost the first one (in 2010), but we came back stronger because of we lost," Williams said. " This is the last game I'll ever play in a St. Mary's uniform. I didn't want to go out with a loss, and all the seniors felt that. This is how we leave, representing St. Mary's."