Nearly 200 people finished a full marathon in Sedona on Saturday, Feb. 3, but they were not the only ones to complete a long journey that day.
Across the street from the Sedona Marathon Event, the Sedona Red Rock High School’s girls basketball team finished a stretch of seven games in nine days with its biggest challenge of the regular season: Page High School, last year’s 3A state runner-up.
The Scorpions crossed the finish line in strong fashion, beating the Sand Devils 55-53 to punctuate the run of games undefeated.
“Games like that are real fun, especially when you win. [It was] that will to win,” Red Rock head coach Dave Moncibaez said. “It was a good game across the board anyways, win or lose, because it’s a nip and tuck type game and it can go any way. But fortunately for us we came out victorious, and the girls were super excited and hopefully we keep that momentum going into the tournament.”
The win was the team’s 16th in a row. Weeks before the season, there were almost not enough players for a team.
On Monday, Feb. 5, less than two weeks before the state tournament, the team moved up to No. 1 in the 2A rankings.
“Across the board it might set a statement, but I think for us it sets a tone. It sets a tone that we want to set going into the [region and state] tournamemts. It makes us belive that we belong up there,” Moncibaez said. “And I tell the girls that, ‘You guys have to believe in yourself because nobody else believes that you deserve to be up here,’ so to have that fight and that drive going into the tournament I think is a good confidence booster for us.”
Red Rock trailed by six with four minutes left in the game. Then Scorpions senior guard Jo Toscano, who had struggled shooting throughout, hit two free throws before tipping a Page pass on the perimeter, collecting the ball and hoisting a desperation attempt at the other end that went in for an and-1. With the free throw, the deficit was cut to one at 49-48.
“I was thinking that we were down [four], and considering last year that we completely got killed and tied over the summer, it was really a statement game for all of us to get somewhere to win tonight, and I figured I need to at least give it my all,” Toscano said.
That foul also put Red Rock in the double bonus. Scorpions senior guard Liza Westervelt hit two foul shots with one minute left, and with 17 seconds left, sophomore forward Jacki King hit the game-winning free throws. In total, the team shot 21 for 24 from the charity stripe.
Meanwhile down the stretch Page missed its shots when they were most important. Sand Devils senior forward Jacey Salabiye, who had 10 points in the first quarter and 17 total, scored one basket. Sand Devils senior forward LeLisa Watson missed the front end of a one-and-one that could have potentially meant a two point lead with 1:40 left.
The Scorpions came out strong against the Sand Devils, who also play the same run-and-gun style. They were up 20-12 after the first quarter, aided by Westervelt’s three for three effort from beyond the arc and the Red Rock defense forcing turnovers.
However, Page did not roll over, scoring 11 unanswered points to open the second quarter and go up 23-22. Seven of those points came from junior guard Mikala Benally, and despite Red Rock senior forward Katia Rodriguez’s basket, the Sand Devils led 27-24 heading into the break.
Both teams canceled one another out in the third quarter. Toscano made three free throws and a triple before Page junior guard Amy Yellowman responded with one of her own. King converted a three-point play, then answered. Westervelt, who finished with 23 points, sunk another three that made it 39-36 heading into the fourth.
“Obviously we’ve had competition throughout the season, but that was our true test and that’s what we’re going to be seeing in state,” Westervelt said. “It was an eye opener for sure. We still need to work hard and stuff but we definitely showed we have way more heart this year than last year for sure.”
The Scorpions were more aggressive offensively at the end of the third and in the fourth, when both teams traded baskets before the final run.
Few times has the team faced off with an opponent like Page, and Moncibaez lauded the team’s mental toughness.
“That was kind of like our point of emphasis of the week is being mentally tough. We were challenged throughout the week in some games,” he said. “We talked about it again against Page; this is the game, this a state championship type game. The girls played as tough as they ever could play. Mentally we stressed it and they achieved it.
“We prepared the girls. You know Page isn’t ever going to give up. They’re not that type of team; they just keep coming after you over and over and over again. I told the girls they’re not going to stop so if you lay down they’ll run you over, and we just had that fight tonight, we had that will to win. We were executing offensively in regards to taking care of the ball and making those easy ones that we were missing a few weeks ago. We executed really well and played with a lot of poise and confidence today.”
Red Rock hosts the winner of Glendale Preparatory Academy and Northland Preparatory Academy at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 7, in the semifinals of the Central Region tournament.