As winners of last year's Nike Tournament of Champions and also last year's national championship, two-time defending Arizona state champion and #1 nationally ranked St. Mary's High School (9-1) took on #3 overall ranked Mater Dei HS (CA) in what we become the best girl's high school basketball game I have ever seen with my own two eyes.
In front of a capacity crowd and loads of division-I college coaches in attendance, St. Mary's would look to build on their amazing 49-game win streak, which began during the 2010-2011 high school basketball season. The Knights would win the final 10 games of the season - leading to the state championship and a 28-2 overall record on the year. Last season, the Knights finished with a perfect 30-0 record on the season, before winning their second consecutive state title.
This season the Knights were 9-0 heading into Friday evening's colossal match-up with one of the nation's strongest basketball programs, boys or girls, at Mater Dei HS. Returning a young but ultra-talented team this season that lacked any starters from a year ago, Mater Dei would look to get the upset victory in front of a large St. Mary's crowd in attendance.
Mater Dei (11-0), behind the stellar shooting exhibition of senior guard Karlie Samuelson (Stanford signee), would build a quick 22-14 lead after the first period. Samuelson would knock down (4) three-pointers in the first quarter, while each shot would not even hit the rim as they swished through the net.
Mater Dei would ignite the after-burners in the second period, as they would build a 31-17 lead with 5:45 left to play in the first half - behind the strong play of junior forward Peyton Langston and 6-foot-4 star sophomore forward Katie Lou Samuelson. Langston would earn a scholarship offer from UCONN after the game.
After a 14-point margin to overcome, St. Mary's 6-foot-2 junior guard/forward Courtney Ekmark (UCONN commit) would stop the bleeding with a three-pointer with 5:30 remaining, until back-to-back three-pointers by Katie Lou Samuelson would give Mater Dei their biggest lead of the game at 17 points, 37-20 with 4:40 left in the half.
But St. Mary's would fight back and prove their championship heart. After consecutive baskets in traffic by 5-foot-11 senior forward Brandee Walton (New Mexico State signee), the Knights would build some confidence. Another running hook shot over a defender by Walton, her third straight basket, would put St. Mary's back within 11-points, 40-29 with just under a minute left to play in the first half.
Mater Dei would take a 40-29 lead into halftime, with St. Mary's taking the late momentum of the game into the third period.
St. Mary's would not slow down, as St. Mary's HS head coach Curtis Ekmark would make several adjustments for his team at halftime.
Immediately in the second half, the Knights would work the basketball inside to talented 6-foot-2 senior post Chantel Osahor (Univ. of Washington signee). Osahor, a very skilled left-handed performer, would go to work on her defender and score back-to-back times down the floor for the Knights. Osahor's presence inside would change the game and give the Knights some serious life.
The Knights would would go on a 15-4 run in the third period over a 5-minute span. A three-pointer by Ekmark and another three-pointer by 5-foot-9 senior guard Danielle Williams (University of Michigan signee) would finally tie the score for the Knights at 44 all with 2:35 left to play in the third quarter.
Mater Dei would eventually take a 50-47 lead at the end of three quarters, and heading into the game's final period.
In the fourth quarter, the Knights would run out of gas and get down by as many as 8 points, as both teams would struggle offensively for several minutes in the period - both teams physically and emotionally spent.
After a technical foul late in the game on Mater Dei's Karlie Samuelson, after she slammed the basketball on the floor after a back-court call by the referee, St. Mary's would pull pull within 3 points with 2 minutes left to play in the contest. Another basket inside by Osahor and St. Mary's would pull within 1-point, 55-54, with 1:50 left in regulation.
With just seconds left to play in the game and the score 57-54 in Mater Dei's favor, St. Mary's would get one final attempt to tie the game at the buzzer, but with the basketball in her hands, Brandee Walton would drive the lane for a two-point attempt instead. As the basketball would bounce off the rim as the buzzer would sound, the win streak would be over for the Knights.
Mater Dei would win the game 57-54 - advancing to the tournament's championship game on Saturday evening where they will now face top-ranked Riverdale Baptist HS (MD).
The competition will not get any easier for St. Mary's, as they will now move on to face formerly top-ranked Bishop O'Dowd HS (CA) on Saturday at 4:15PM. Bishop O'Dowd, rated as high as the nation's top program this season, lost to Riverdale Baptist HS on Friday evening.
While the St. Mary's players looked dejected after the game, this group of girls proved to the state of Arizona's players and basketball fans that it is possible to take a team of players from the state and win it all nationally. With so many high school boys at this time consistently looking to represent other states with their play, the St. Mary's girls have stuck together over the years and proved that Arizona basketball can compete with the nation's elite players and win. I have never witnessed a high school team in Arizona like the one of the Knights. They play together, win together and, of course, lose together. Even after defeat Friday evening, not one Knight's player hung their heads or pointed the finger at another teammate. This team is a class act and will continue to roll in Arizona this high school season.
After a the game, terrific head coach Curtis Ekmark commented on his team's previous win streak.
"The girls have no reason to have their heads down, they played hard," said Ekmark. "I guess we will have to start the win streak over again."