Sunrise Mountain’s boys basketball season came to an end March 13 as the #12 Mustangs could not overcome a heavy first-half deficit and fell 71-60 to the #4 Gilbert Tigers in the AIA 5A playoff quarterfinals.
From the beginning, the Mustangs could not contain Gilbert junior Nikko Pentelute. The guard scored 26 points, including 14 in the first half. The Tigers hit shots from all areas of the floor while the Mustangs struggled and raced out to a double-digit lead after a quarter.
Sunrise Mountain moved the ball and created several open shots, but just could not get many to go in.
“Once it got to that eight, ten range, then we just started panicking and started to rush. And that was when they had their spurt. We were ok, just needed the shots to fall,” said Sunrise Mountain coach Gary Rath.
Senior guard Tampa Scott hit a contested three-pointer just before the second-quarter buzzer to give the Tigers a 41-20 lead at halftime.
“You can’t dig yourself a hole against a good team like that,” Rath said.
“You can’t get down by 20 at this level, or you’re not going to win.”
In the second half, the Mustangs were more aggressive and efficient. Sunrise Mountain outscored the Tigers by ten points in the third and fourth quarters.
A major factor in the near comeback was the play of senior wing Colin Carey, the top scorer and senior leader for Sunrise Mountain. He began attacking the rim and looking for his shot more. He scored 16 of his team-high 22 in the second half.
Pentelute, who added 12 in the second half himself, was complimentary to Carey, saying it was tough for the Tigers to guard him all night.
“He’s a stud. His skill level is great for being so tall, and he’s a good kid and I love his game. Maybe in the future in college I’ll get to match up with him again,” Pentelute said.
Sunrise Mountain whittled away at the lead in the third quarter, but Gilbert slowed the pace and scored just enough to keep the Mustangs at bay. They led by 17 after three quarters.
The attack kept coming from Sunrise Mountain, which slowly chipped away at the lead. With about two minutes left the Mustangs started intentionally fouling to prolong the fourth quarter. Gilbert went on a cold run, missing four of five foul shots at one point.
But the lead was simply too large, and the Mustangs’ desperation shots did not fall enough to cut Gilbert’s lead to single digits, much less pull off a comeback.
With the win, Gilbert reached the 5A semifinal round for the second time in three seasons and avenged its loss in the quarterfinals from a year ago. The Tigers will visit #1 Centennial on March 18.
“Last year we bounced in the elite eight. I’m trying to bring back a ring like two years ago,” Pentelute said.
Though emotional and disappointed in the loss, Mustang junior guard Rafe Canale said he was proud of the way the team battled in the second half despite Gilbert’s big lead.
“It was better, the effort was there, but I wish we had that fight in the first half that we had in the second half,” he said.
Canale was a bright spot for the Mustangs, hitting four three-pointers and adding a couple layups for 16 total points and leading the offense well from his point guard spot.
A junior, he will be back again next year for the Mustangs. Rath is not looking too far ahead, but he said he is excited to be able to coach Canale another season.
“He controls everything for us, does a great job. So smart, so basketball smart and does the right things that I’m looking forward to having him again next year,” Rath said.
Despite their loss, the Mustangs said they were proud of the fight they showed all season. Sunrise Mountain played the third-toughest schedule in 5A, as determined by the AIA ranking system.
And the Mustangs shook off losses in three of their final four games in the regular season before upsetting #5 Buena as the #12 seed in the first round.
After fighting through a shortened, unprecedented season due to COVID-19 and coach Rath’s offseason health scare and still reaching the quarterfinals, there was a lot to be prideful about.
“The fact that we made it through this, made it this far with all that’s going on and the news with coach is amazing. I just wish we could have gone even farther,” Canale said.
The Mustangs will graduate eight seniors from the varsity roster and finish with a 11-10 overall record in the 2020-21 season.
“I’m going to miss the seniors,” Rath added. “They’ve been with us for four years. They all played with our club in the offseason, and I’m going to miss those guys and their dedication.”