GLENDALE - Salpointe Catholic coach Brian Holstrom doesn't know who, but someone on his team scribbled a post-game message on the board inside their locker room Saturday.
It read: "We Will Be Back. - SC basketball."
The sixth-seeded Lancers could very well find themselves back in the state finals next year after losing 45-38 to No. 4 Phoenix Paradise Valley in the Division II state championship at Jobing.com Arena. They return their top five scorers, including junior Cameron Denson. The UA football commit led Salpointe with 18 points in its first championship appearance since 1999.
"We've got to get back to this same spot but we've got to finish it next year," Denson said. "We'll just have to use this as momentum and use this to build fire for next year."
It was the 10th consecutive year at least one Southern Arizona boys team advanced to the state finals at any level. Early on, it looked like Salpointe was going to become the third area champion in the last four years.
The Lancers (23-11) jumped out to a 6-0 lead, but fell behind 7-6 with 3 minutes 38 seconds left in the first quarter after Paradise Valley came to life. Denson quickly put the Lancers back up when took a steal to the basket but couldn't convert the and-one. Thirteen seconds later, Paradise Valley senior Ryan Finley sank a pair of free throws to make it 9-8 and put the Trojans up.
Paradise Valley (26-7) never trailed again.
"We were capable and could have kept going, they just hot and we couldn't stay with them after that," said Salpointe sophomore Jaylyn Juan, who finished with seven points.
Paradise Valley led by nine points at the half. The Lancers eventually pulled within four midway through the fourth quarter.
But each time the Lancers inched closer, 6-foot-6-inch senior Fresno State commit Paul Watson boosted the Trojans' lead. He scored a game-high 20 points, 13 of which came in the second half as he went 5 for 6 from the field. He said Salpointe may have been the best man-to-man team the Trojans faced all year.
"We really played a lot better in the second half," Holstrom said. "He made some huge shots. It wasn't because a lack of defense or a lack of effort, he just made those shots."
Salpointe shot 36.8 percent from the field in the first half but improved to 56.3 in the second. Overall, the Lancers went 1 for 9 from beyond the three-point line and shot 40 percent from the free-throw line.
"Free throws and turnovers, that's what killed us," Denson said.
The Lancers lose senior captains Daniel Arzouman and Logan Tober to graduation. Holstrom said it will be tough replacing their leadership but said he's looking forward to watching his younger players continue to grow.
"All those guys, they're going to be dreamers and they're going to be believers from now on because they overcame a lot and gave themselves a great opportunity," Holstrom said. "It just didn't happen for us at the end."
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Contact reporter Daniel Gaona at firstname.lastname@example.org or 807-7761. On Twitter @DGaona13.