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St. Mary's dashes Paradise Honors 4A basketball title dreams late

Knights erase 9-point deficit fourth quarter

Posted 3/20/21

Paradise Honors was mere moments away from staving off a comeback, but the Panthers fell 50-47 to the top-seeded St. Mary’s Knights in the 4A boys basketball championship game.

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St. Mary's dashes Paradise Honors 4A basketball title dreams late

Knights erase 9-point deficit fourth quarter


AVONDALE - Paradise Honors was mere moments away from staving off a comeback, but the Panthers fell 50-47 to the top-seeded St. Mary’s Knights in Saturday’s 4A boys basketball championship game.

It was the Panthers’ first season in the 4A conference. No. 3 seed Paradise Honors had many deep playoff runs in recent seasons, including a semifinal appearance in 3A in 2019 and in 2A in 2018.

After realignment, though, the Panthers moved up to the new conference, impressing many but surprising few on their way to the final.

With several difficult opponents in the shortened schedule, Paradise Honors (20-3) had plenty of big-game experience to draw upon. It just fell barely short in the last game at St. John Paul II Catholic School in Avondale.

“There were a few more really good teams, so the depth of the conference was definitely a little better. But we knew we could compete in 4A and tonight, we knew we had a shot,” coach Zach Hettel said.

It looked for most of the game that Paradise Honors could not only hang in with St. Mary’s (21-1), but win. The Panthers started hot.

Five different players scored in the first quarter as they attacked the basket and hit shots at the rim. Part of Paradise Honors’ success in the paint came from the Knights junior forward Jeremiah Cherry sitting most of the first half. He picked up two early fouls, and with 5:40 left in the first quarter he sat down.

He would not get back on the floor until the third quarter, weakening the Knights’ interior defense without their six-foot-ten post.

“We knew with him out that they had one less really tall guy out there, out of a few. We play with a lot of space and run a lot of high stuff on the floor so, having him out definitely gave us a little bit more of a look at the basket,” Hettel said.

Meanwhile the undersized Paradise Honors forwards held their own early and did not let St. Mary’s dominate the paint. That was a point of emphasis, Hettel said, after being outrebounded in the teams’ regular season game weeks before.

The Knights won that contest at home, 78-67, on Feb. 18.

“I think we got hammered on the glass the first game, and it took us a while to adapt, but our bigs have done a great job overall all year and they played really hard tonight,” Hettel said.

Paradise Honors junior guard Blessing Nwotite gets up to defend the jumper of St. Mary's senior guard Kieran Brown during the 4A boys basketball state title game March 20 in Avondale. [Christine Andert/For West Valley Preps]

Paradise Honors kept up the pace throughout the half, ending the second quarter with a late steal and a layup just seconds before the buzzer sounded. The Panthers were up 28-23 at the break.

The third quarter was slower, with Paradise Honors  throttling down. Senior guard Jalen Scott brought the ball down the court leisurely, content to probe into the paint and turn around or kick out to teammates if the right opportunity was not there.

The strategy worked well enough, as the Panthers scored just 14 in the third period but played good enough defense to lead 42-33 entering the fourth quarter.

“That was our game plan. We wanted to score at the same time, but we wanted to slow it down somewhat,” Scott said.

The Knights caught fire in the fourth, getting the ball inside and hitting jumpers that had not fallen earlier in the game. Meanwhile the Panthers’ offense went cold.

Paradise Honors’ lead shrunk slowly as the Knights crawled back with methodical offense attacking the paint. With 3:12 left, St. Mary’s freshman Styles Phipps gave the Knights their first lead, 47-46. The Panthers hit a free throw to even the score.

Both teams exchanged scoreless trips, and St. Mary’s had the ball with 1:20 left in the game tied 47-47.

Senior Keiren Brown stood dribbling just steps in front of the half-court line. Without a shot clock, the Knights ran down the clock more than a minute.

Jeremiah Cherry, shaking off his slow start, hit an up-and-under lay up with 16 seconds left to go up 49-47.

Out of a timeout, the Panthers drew up a play to get Scott the ball in the paint. He missed a well-contested lay up attempt. With seven seconds left, the Knights hit just one of two foul shots to keep Paradise Honors within one possession.

Paradise Honors moved the ball down the court but missed a tough three at the buzzer. St Mary’s rebounded the miss as the clock expired and celebrated its title.

“We just didn’t score enough at the end,” Scott said.

St Mary’s captured its first title since 2009. The Knights knocked on the door last year as the #4 team in the 2020 4A bracket, but they got drubbed by Peoria in the semifinals.

Phelps said St. Mary’s used the motivation from the beating to motivate them this year. Past hurt made the 2021 victory even sweeter.

“It means a lot because of what happened last year. When that happened, we took it to heart, and every single one of us went our own ways and grinded to make sure our year didn’t end like that again,” said Phelps, who scored a game-high 14 points.

The Panthers will lose a special senior class to graduation, including captains Scott and guard Wyatt Bell. But they will return several talented players as well.

Three of Paradise Honors’ starters in the championship game were juniors, and other underclassmen made an impact off the bench.

While it will likely take time for the Panthers to get over the close loss, Hettel said there is much to be excited for in seasons to come.

“We’re going to have guys that come in to step up, so I’m looking forward to how they do that,” he said.