It was Sunrise Mountain girls basketball's debut in the Nike Tournament of Champions - and really and national tournament of that caliber.
Jen Tolle's Mustangs made an impression, knocking off three California teams to reach the finals of the Derril Kipp bracket Dec. 22 at Tempe High School.
Neither Sunrise Mountain nor Caruthers (Calif.) could take control of the Wednesdaya fternoon game, the Mustangs' second quarter spurt being matched by the Blue Raiders third quarter run. They remained close throughout the fourth, with Caruthers (9-2) winning 53-52 on senior Krisy Truman's layup off an inbound pass with four seconds left.
"We got a ton of good experience. I keep going back to the ball pressure and the intensity level. We saw a lot of different offenses. We played teams that were smaller and quicker and teams that were bigger and we had to play more physical," Tolle said. "What I hope they learn about themselves is they can play with any type of team. And in game situations where the games are close like this one and we have to get a stop - all that stuff is valuable."
In the earlier rounds Tolle mostly went with a six-player rotation. With sophomore point guard Ysabel Puente out for the final, freshman guard Jaden Maza stepped in and acquitted herself well, scoring three points and grabbing six rebounds.
That's in addition to freshman Savanna Dotray, who started and has already stamped herself as a regular contributor.
"We were already missing one of our guards for the whole tournament and then had Ysa down. For Jaden to step in like she did was just awesome. The thing that impressed me the most was she made some mistakes but hung in there and kept thinking about the next play. She adjusted well," Tolle said.
Both teams in the final were led offensively by a sharpshooting guard and a versatile post. Cathuthers junior Morgan Triguero led all players with 23 points, including six three-point buckets, while Truman added 15 points.
Sunrise Mountain (9-2) junior guard Mackenzie Nielsen hit four threes in the first half and led the Mustangs with 22 points. Junior forward Mackenzie Dunham finished with 15 points and 13 rebounds.
"They've been very reliable and consistent for us all season. Mackenzie Dunham, regardless of the scoring, is always on the boards for us and making those in-between plays and blocked shots. Team have to check Mackenzie Nielsen everywhere. It's a huge advantage because of the attention that's paid to her. And we don't exactly have scrubs around them," Tolle said.
Indeed, the whole rotation got the Mustangs to the final. Puente scored 16 and junior forward Reena Bhakta added 15 points and 8 rebounds in the 53-47 semifinal win over Pinole Valley (Calif.) Dec. 21.
In a 74-55 romp over Westlake (Calif.) on Dec. 20 the Mustangs did damage from long range, hitting 11 of 28 three pointers. Nielsen made five and senior guard Kelci Connolly and Puente each hit three.
"I think we've responded really well, playing well as a team. This was a team win instead of just individual star players," Connolly said.
Sunrise Mountain had 20 assists on 28 field goals that night.
The Mustangs beat Valley View (Calif.) 66-62 in the first game.
"Knowing people off the court really helps with knowing people on the court," Dunham said. "And it's definitely an advantage to play in the post."
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