GLENDALE — Moments after Saturday’s Division II girls basketball state championship game ended, Cienega coach Paul Reed walked down his bench, shaking hands and giving high-fives to each player.
It wasn’t a celebration, though — Reed was showing thanks for one heck of a ride.
The Bobcats’ first trip to the state semifinals and finals came to an end with Chandler Seton Catholic beating them 37-30 at Jobing.com Arena in Glendale. It was Seton’s fourth state title in the last five years.
It was just the second loss of the season for Cienega, which had won 10 straight games prior to Saturday.
“I was just telling the girls I appreciate them for playing, for coming out and enjoying the ride,” said Reed, in his second year leading the team. “It meant a lot to be able to represent Cienega and Southern Arizona in the state finals. It’s what the girls dreamed about, and what they talked about all year.
“It was a pleasure of mine to have the ability to coach these girls. They played hard.”
The Bobcats (26-2) made it hard on themselves in the second half. They were held scoreless in the third quarter and trailed 24-16 heading into the fourth.
Cienega led 16-14 at halftime, despite not scoring in the final 2 minutes 26 seconds of the half. The Bobcats’ last first-half points came on a Gabby Banales three-pointer that made it 16-11.
About 90 seconds later, Seton’s Heather Heild answered with a triple of her own to trim the Bobcats’ lead to two and start what would be a 13-0 run spanning the two halves. When the run finally ended, the game was nearly out of reach.
Cienega finally scored with 6:34 remaining in the game. Junior Kelaiah Dillard was fouled on a three-point attempt, and made all three free throws to cut the lead to 24-19.
“It felt like we were about to kick it up and get it back into motion,” Dillard said. “Get everything working right and get back in the game.”
The Sentinels (32-3) scored 29 seconds later to gain a seven-point advantage. Cienega then answered with four straight points to make it 26-23, the last two coming on a Banales bucket. Seton added another layup before Cienega’s Ariana Roche sank a three from the left corner, right in front of her team’s bench, to pull the Bobcats within a pair with 3:35 left.
“I knew my girls were never going to give up,” Reed said. “I knew they were going to keep fighting. It’s unfortunate we put ourselves in a pretty big hole in that third quarter.”
But the Bobcats wouldn’t get any closer than two points down. Cienega junior Treyanna Clay made a layup with 49.5 seconds remaining to make it 33-30, but Seton held the Bobcats scoreless from there, sinking four free throws to secure the win.
“It hurts that we didn’t get first, but I know my team worked really hard, and we didn’t back down,” said Banales, who finished with five points. “I’m so proud of them, and I’m excited for them next year.”
Clay scored six points to go along with 13 rebounds, four blocks and four steals. Senior Denesia Smith, who transferred from Sierra Vista Buena, led Cienega with nine points — seven of which came in the first half — and had a team-high five assists.
While neither Banales nor Smith will be back for Cienega next year, Reed said he is comfortable with the group of players returning.
The most prominent one is likely to be Clay, who said Saturday that the team could be back in the finals next winter.
“We just have to work hard over the summer,” she said. “Do what we need to do and get back on the court.”