While many teams spent the regular-season jelling, Ironwood Ridge experienced what it was like to have its five best players on the court for the first time this season.
The result was more than welcome as the No. 2-seeded Nighthawks opened the 5A-II state playoffs with a 71-44 win over No. 15 Laveen Betty Fairfax.
"Most importantly, this was the first time we played with our five best players this year," said Ironwood Ridge coach Brian Peabody.
Among those five was Lawrence Hampton, who scored a game-high 21 points for the host Nighthawks, including 13 in the first half. Center Jan Maehlen, who has been hampered by an ankle injury much of the year, also contributed.
The pair created difficult matchups Thursday despite not playing together all season.
"I think this is great because two games ago, Jan didn't play," Hampton said. "Four games ago I didn't play, so (Fairfax) didn't know what to expect tonight."
Throughout the course of the season, Ironwood Ridge (22-8) alternated between an up-tempo, pressing scheme and a more methodical, half-court offense. Thursday, the clear choice was playing fast-break basketball.
Not only did the Nighthawks impose their defensive will on the Stampede, but they routinely took advantage of Fairfax's inability to get back on defense, converting easy fast-break layups. Among those who benefited was sophomore Mitch Fischer with 17 points.
"We had a game plan and we knew that they didn't get back defensively," Fischer said.
• Phoenix Central 72, Rincon/University 62: At Central, Rincon (17-13) cut the Bobcats advantage to two points in the fourth quarter but couldn't take the lead.
"They (Central) were 21 for 23 from the foul-line," Rincon/University coach Rich Utter said. "We just couldn't get over the hump."