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Ironwood holds off Higley in Glendale for 2nd finals trip

Posted 2/29/24

Once the 5A conference playoff bracket fell into place, the consensus was that the top seeded Ironwood Eagles were going to be the team to beat. 

In Wednesday night's semifinal, the #4 seed …

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Ironwood holds off Higley in Glendale for 2nd finals trip


Once the 5A conference playoff bracket fell into place, the consensus was that the top seeded Ironwood Eagles were going to be the team to beat. 

In Wednesday night's semifinal, the #4 seed Higley Knights were not intimidated, pushing the Eagles into their first close game against a 5A opponent since a 79-70 win at Willow Canyon Jan. 4. The way the game finished was similar to how it started, a Knights scoring run, however the difference was the lead Ironwood had in the final quarter.

Early in the fourth, the Eagles were up 11, their largest of the contest. It seemed like enough of an cushion to pull out the game without drama. 

Then came the Knights led by junior Luke Haugo. who quickly trimmed the lead down to six and got within three with under a minute to go. Clutch free throw shooting and two midrange baskets by senior guard Noah Gifft closed out a 71-68 Eagle victory.. 

“Coach Augustine came up with some great plays for us to execute and our players came in clutch, my teammates came in clutch, we all did our jobs,” Gifft said. 

With the victory Ironwood (26-3) advances to face off against #2 Casteel (23-6) in the 5A championship game at 8 p.m.  Friday, March 1 at Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix.

Gifft, who broke the 5A conference record for three pointers made in a single season in the previous game, was held to two treys Wednesday night and had to rely on getting to the basket and hitting shorter jumpers. Four of his seven field goals made were in the midrange. 

The Eagles' exit from the Open Division, a 66-47 loss to a Phoenix St. Mary's Catholic team that starts 6-7 and 6-9 forwards, helped guard-oriented Ironwood  for this matchup. Higley rolls out the Dabney brothers, Gavin and Donovan, who ar 6-4 and 6-5 guards, plus the 6-5 Haugo.

“Length, height, something we learned from the St Mary’s game was that we can’t go all the way to the basket, and for me personally that meant getting to my spot in the midrange and cashing in, I’m known as a three point shooter but I can still get to those spots and get those shots up,” Gifft said.

The home team was able to roll into the semifinals, following a bye and a routine win over Cave Creek Cactus Shadows.

Ironwood started slow, as Donovan Dabney of the Knights got to the basket for six points in the first three minutes of the game. Higley (9-1) jumped out to a 10-4 lead and led 12-10 after the game’s first quarter. The Knights' size was a problem early.

“We had to be more physical and a lot more poised against a bigger team and it prepared us for today, a very well coached team and a very talented team and we were able to do enough,” coach Jordan Augustine said.

The Eagles played sloppy early on with four turnovers and found themselves down six early in the second quarter. Following a time out, Ironwood sparked a 22-9 run to close out the half and lead 34-27 at halftime.

“Just be solid, don’t do too much, early in the game we were trying to do too much and we just needed to be solid and be us and the outcome would be what we needed it to be and that’s what happened, we got the shots we needed to get and the stops we needed to get,” Augustine said. 

The biggest x-factor during the Eagles run was a loud home crowd that disrupted the Knights offense and contributed to four Higley turnovers in the final four minutes of the half including one on their final possession that set up a buzzer-beating three point basket by senior guard Jadden Jones.

“I got here during Covid and the environment wasn’t the same because everyone was spread out, but I’ve gone through my four years and we have an environment and community like this that cares and supports us and it just means a lot to us. It really does,” Gifft said. 

Knowing how to adjust and play with energy has been a staple of the Eagles program throughout the season. Playing with extra purpose has been the motivation for the team since July.

During the summer Augustine’s mother, Deborah, passed away just a month after the team visited her as she finished her final round of chemotherapy. 

“All these guys have done is just win, they’ve been such incredible young men and hard workers. I could write a book about the journey we’ve gone through this year with my mom passing away in July and the resilience of this group has shown when we got our butts kicked in July and us getting better and better. It's prepared us for this moment,” Augustine said.