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O'Connor girls bounce back for basketball title

Phoenix school wins 6A crown in first state final

Posted 3/3/24

PHOENIX - The foundation of what would win O’Connor the 6A state championship on Saturday morning was forged in the final seven minutes of the Eagles semifinal victory over Dobson on Tuesday …

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O'Connor girls bounce back for basketball title

Phoenix school wins 6A crown in first state final


PHOENIX - The foundation of what would win O’Connor the 6A state championship on Saturday morning was forged in the final seven minutes of the Eagles semifinal victory over Dobson on Tuesday night.

O’Connor found themselves backed up against the wall after a large Dobson scoring run put them behind before a dominating run would put the Eagles on top for good. 

The same situation presented itself Saturday. After O’Connor took a 26-19 lead into the locker room at halftime, the Perry Pumas started the second half on an 8-0 run to take a 27-26 lead halfway through the third quarter. 

Head coach Charles Wilson called a timeout and that was the moment the Eagles locked in and took the game over.

“I was telling them to watch the high pick and roll and to either ice it or switch it and we changed personnel to be able to do it and in the final moment of the timeout we talked about situational basketball to let them know we had three timeouts left and to value our possessions” Wilson said.

O’Connor would go on a 24-6 run following that timeout en route to a 54-46 victory to take home the first state championship in program history. 

Wilson’s journey to becoming the Eagles head coach was far from a linear path. Wilson started his coaching career at Sunrise Mountain as a boys assistant under Gary Rath before moving over to Millennium to be a girls assistant coach on their 2021 and 2022 championship teams.

In 2022-23 as former O’Connor head coach Danny Soliman left to take the head coach job at Millennium, Wilson got his opportunity and ran with it. But Saturday’s championship victory is just a step in the long term direction for the program and for him. 

“It still hasn’t hit yet that I’m the guy that everyone’s looking to and I’m not in the comfort zone with that yet but I’m proud of them for buying in on what we need to do and I’m excited to keep this thing rolling,” Wilson said. 

A key piece throughout the season but especially in  Saturday’s championship victory was the defense of senior point guard Taeja Bartee. As the primary defender on Puma star sophomore Sage Henry, Bartee held Henry to 2/10 shooting and forced a turnover. 

“You ask anyone on the team and they’ll tell you we hang our hats on defense and defense travels. It starts on the defensive side of the floor and if we kept up our defense we’d be good,” Bartee said. 

During the 24-6 second half run, the Eagles forced multiple Perry turnovers which led to easy baskets and quick points in transition. This allowed senior Thalia Daniels who was scoreless in the first game to get easy points and get into a quick rhythm scoring 10 points during the run before fouling out.

“I had a bit of a slow start but I just needed to move on and get past that and learn from my mistakes and ask how I can get better whether it’s not scoring or not and going from there,” Daniels said.

With Daniels struggling from the field early on, freshman Ava Schooler’s seven second quarter points were the difference in the first half. She finished with 13 points to lead the Eagles in scoring.

“For us, using shot fakes to get them out of position and fakes in general to get them off their feet allowed us to drive and we were in attack mode all game. That was our game plan to attack them down hill,” Schooler said. “They’re great leaders, they really taught me about the game and have been mentoring me the whole time and so I want to be a leader like them when I’m an upperclassman but they’ve done a really good job of guiding me through everything."

Schooler’s growth played a role in the Eagles season turning a page after a 53-48 upset loss to Phoenix Sunnyslope on Jan. 25. 

“The Sunnyslope loss was huge, it was impactful, that moment was a wake up call for us to make some adjustments and go back to the drawing board and figure out what’s best for us and what’s best for the girls and as a staff. That’s when we changed the rotation and played into the girls strengths and did a lot of little things and watched a ton of film and the Sunnyslope win was the moment that we realized it all worked and it turned from there,” Wilson said.

Following that loss, the Eagles won eight of their final ten games by an average margin of 19 points per contest.

A big thing during that stretch that contributed to the Eagles' success was their discipline on the defensive end of the court and their ability to stay out of foul trouble, which was a struggle earlier in the season.

That problem reared its head during the game, as junior McGuire Lennon and Daniels fouled out of the contest during the fourth quarter.

The Eagles finished with 17 fouls, four of which came in the final three minutes, allowing the Pumas to begin to inch closer.

“We knew it would be inconsistent so we practiced for it, we also brought in the JV boys team to help us get physical so we could adjust to how the game would be played and how it would be called. And we came down here and saw the refs would be calling the game and we practiced for it,” Wilson said.

Down the stretch the senior leadership of Bartee, Chloe Beckman, and Daniels from the bench that had shown up all season, appeared once again. That allowed the Eagles led by sophomores Audrey Bhesania and Bella Overlock as well as junior Bella Elsholz to finish the game from the free throw line and close out the victory.

“Taeja led by example on the floor with her defensive mindset and mentally is night and day from last year and learned how to handle adversity. I’m so proud of her for that. Chloe is a huge piece, she’s a ball of energy, she’s a nightmare in practice and that translates to games. She’s such a great player and brings such great effort. Thalia learned how to communicate with the team better and bring that leadership on the floor so they all bring something different and that’s huge and it rubs off on all the younger girls," Wilson said.