After a one-and-done performance in the state tournament last season, the Sahuaro High girls basketball team wants to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
So longtime coach Steve Botkin hopes the Flowing Wells Holiday Shootout helps prepare his young squad for a postseason run.
The Cougars (14-2) opened the two-day, 16-team tournament with a 58-28 win over Catalina Foothills at Flowing Wells on Friday morning and later beat Gilbert 61-44. If Sahuaro beats Cienega in the semifinals today at 1:30 p.m., it will advance to the championship game tonight at 7:30.
“I think it’s huge to put that little bit of pressure on them right now and say these are big games and this is what it takes to get to the Final Four,” Botkin said. “You don’t want to put a ton of pressure on them but you want them to understand.”
Star sophomore Sydney Harden led the way for Sahuaro with a game-high 20 points while senior Itzel Valencia-Gallegos scored 10 to help the Cougars win their third straight game and stay undefeated in tournament play.
“It’s so important to get used to playing in tournament games because even the little games we still learn,” said Harden, who is averaging close to a double-double this season. “It’s games like that when you can work on your skills and stuff so when you play in important games like state championships then you already know what to do because it’s natural to you.”
In addition to getting used to playing in a tournament setting against good competition, Botkin wants to see his team improve on defensive consistency. The Cougars led 35-11 at the half in the first game Friday but came out flat in the third quarter, allowing Foothills to go on a short run.
“I told the girls that offense and scoring looks nice and pretty but if we don’t stop anyone we’ll lose some big games,” Botkin said.
While three of Sahuaro’s top four scorers are underclassmen, it doesn’t always show. Freshman point guard Elena Arriaga and the Cougars went 6-0 to open the season and won the Boyd Baker Invitational.
Arriaga, who is averaging 6.4 points a game behind sophomore Reazsha Benjamin’s 6.6, hopes they can wrap up another tournament title today.
“They’re young but they play with so much poise,” Botkin said. “It’s nice to see there’s not a lot of stuff that rattles them.”
Foothills, meanwhile is even younger, with just one senior on a 10-player roster. Coach Pete Fajardo knows it’s a work in progress but was still happy with the way his team played, especially in the second half.
“We’re using this tournament as a learning experience,” Fajardo said. “Sahuaro is one of the better teams in the city and even though we didn’t come out on top we learned a lot about what we need to do.”