Head coach Jay Cesario and his Gilbert Tigers (24-7) came into Saturday night's Division-I state playoff game on the road at Chaparral High School as one of the clear favorites, by many basketball enthusiasts, to reach the state finals this high school season. But Gilbert's chances of even advancing to the next round of the playoffs would be in question after the Tigers would run into a game bnch of talented prospects, the Chaparral Firebirds (22-8).
Chaparral is among the most talented teams in the state, as they have two of the state's premier post players and also several top prospects from Arizona's young 2015 class. While 6-foot-8 senior post Joe Boyd (Drake University signee) would struggle with an injury in his final game of his high school career, and miss much of the game's action on Saturday evening, 6-foot-7 senior post Eric Conklin and his young group of teammates would come up big on the night.
Chaparral would come out on fire in the opening quarter, taking a 19-8 lead after a driving layup from 6-foot-1 junior guard Mike Hamm.
Gilbert would finish the quarter strong after a driving layup from 5-foot-10 junior point guard Anthony Bryant.
Chaparral would lead after one, 19-10, behind 6 points each from 5-foot-9 senior guard Hayden Bishop and Eric Conklin. Gilbert would remain close behind 6 points from talented and underrated 6-foot-3 senior guard Conner Helvig.
In the second period, Helvig would continue his strong play with a steal and a nice two-handed dunk. With 3:02 remaining in the half, Gilbert's gifted 6-foot-8, 225-pound sophomore post Truman Moore would convert a sweeping sky hook in the lane to make the score 23-18, Chaparral.
Chaparral would remain strong late in the period after an offensive rebound of his own missed shot and a put-back from ultra-athletic 6-foot-4 sophomore guard Kenzo Nudo - putting the Firebirds ahead 27-20. Then another driving layup from Hayden Bishop around a defender, a layup inside by Conklin and then another driving layup around a defender by Conklin with :35 seconds left to play and Chaparral would jump out to a big 33-22 lead.
Gilbert would get a momentum boost just before the half, as Truman Moore would explode for a big two-handed tip-dunk on a missed shot attempt by a teammate at the halftime buzzer.
Chaparral would lead at the half, 33-24, with Chaparral fans and parents hoping for their team to pull off the big victory.
As the Chaparral team walked on to the court for the second half, coming out of their lockerroom, the Chaparral fans would give them a standing ovation - hoping to ignite their team.
The Gilbert Tigers entered the gymnasium focused and looking to turn things around quickly. Gilbert would do just that in the third period, as the young Truman Moore would come up huge in the third period for his team. Moore would finish right where he left off in the second period, as he would finish a nice two-handed dunk in transition, then knock down a 17-foot jumper from the top of the key while left unguarded - making the score 33-28, Chaparral.
After a quick Chaparral timeout, Gilbert would keep it rolling. A nice assist to a cutting Anthony Bryant from Truman Moore would close the gap even more, before a poised turnaround jumper off the glass over a defender by Helvig - making it a one-point game, 33-32, Chaparral.
Chaparral would finally stop the bleeding after a basket by Kenzo Nudo, but Truman Moore would then rebound his own missed shot and convert a jump hook over a defender to keep the game close, 35-34, still in Chaparral's favor.
Chaparral would get some breathing room after a three-pointer from 6-foot-1 junior guard Shane Cooper, but Gilbert's Helvig would answer right back with a clutch three-pointer of his own. After a driving layup from 6-foot-4 sophomore forward Ryan Bayster, Helvig would again make a clutch shot - a pump fake of his defender and then a 15-foot jump shot as the thrird quarter buzzer would sound.
Chaparral would hold on to a narrow 44-41 lead after three.
In the fourth period, Kenzo Nudo would emerge in a big way, as he would catch a pass in transition from teammate, 5-foot-11 sophomore point guard Brandon Hoffer, and then take off for a monster one-handed dunk over a defender on the break, putting his team ahead 46-41.
Gilbert would come back with a three-point play, after a driving layup after being fouled by 6-foot-6 junior forward Spencer Nicholds. Nicholds' free-throw would make it a two-point game, 46-44, still in Chaparral's favor. After a defensive stop, Gilbert would tie it up on the next possession after an unintensional bank shot from 15 feet from Truman Moore. Gilbert would get another defensive stop, and then take the lead for the first time with a cool mid-range jumper from 6-foot-4 senior forward Tanner Reber. After another nice turn-around jumper over a defender by Truman Moore, Gilbert would jump out to a 50-46 lead with 3:02 left to play.
With the game in the balance, Kenzo Nudo would come up big again with the play of the game - a monster tip-dunk on a missed shot attempt by a teammate with 2:28 left to play.
Holding on to a narrow 50-48 lead with less than 2 minutes left to play, Gilbert's Anthony Bryant would get fouled and miss the front-end of the one-and-one. Chaparral would rebound the miss, but Chaparral's Hoffer would miss on a shot attempt on the other end. Gilbert would rebound the miss and Bryant would get fouled again. This time, Bryant would convert both free-throws for a 52-48 lead.
In the final minute of the game, Gilbert's Helvig would convert 5 of 6 free-throws to give his team the narrow 57-55 playoff victory - advancing them to the state quarterfinals where they will now face # seed Pinnacle HS on Tuesday at Wells Fargo Arena.
Gilbert will remain very tough to beat this post-season, as they are a very well-coached team, as good as any in the state, and have a very strong line-up of players that know their roles and play together - a tribute to the talented Gilbert coaching staff.
For Chaparral, while their season ends, it ends on a very high note. The future looks extremely bright for Chaparral, as they will return one of the best young teams in the state next season. Saturday evening was a coming-out party for these young prospects, while unsigned senior post Eric Conklin will garner much recruiting attention this spring.