Unhappy with its play against Basha and Hamilton, Mountain Pointe High’s Jalen Graham and Khalid Price called a team meeting.
The Pride were 7-0 and ranked 12th in the country by MaxPreps yet the two captains knew the team needed to turn a corner to remain successful against top competition – and 23rd-ranked Pinnacle, the defending state champion that knocked off the Pride in the 6A title game last season, was up next.
The Pioneers were coming off an emotional win over defending 4A champ Shadow Mountain.
“We were just really dysfunctional as a team,” said Graham, a 6-foot-10 senior forward, who has committed to Santa Clara. “We just came in and said, ‘Look guys, we have as much talent as anybody else in the state. We just aren’t putting those pieces together.’
“We just needed to get on the same page so we can be a great team and beat other great teams.”
What was said in the meeting quickly came to fruition on Dec. 4, as the Pride rolled through Pinnacle 76-59, leading by as many as 26 points.
As a result, Mountain Pointe moved up to 11th in the nation and Pinnacle dropped to 29th. They remain 1-2 in Arizona.
The ranking puts a target on the Pride’s back but even that won’t change their mindset.
“We play every game like it’s a state championship since we lost last year,” first-year Mountain Pointe coach Kirk Fauske said. “Whoever we play, we are going to approach it like a state championship.”
Mountain Pointe was successful in all facets of the game and limited University of Arizona-commit Nico Mannion to 20 points, six fewer than his average.
Price shined in his role as floor general, setting up Graham and others for easy buckets.
A 35-31 lead at the half quickly grew to a 20-point margin for the Pride largely because of dominance in the paint on both ends of the court.
Graham led the way with 20 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks, and Price added 9 points, 7 assists and 2 steals.
Pinnacle’s defense focused on the duo, which freed up others. Two three-pointers by sophomore Jason Kimbrough all but eliminated any chance for a Pinnacle comeback, while seniors DeAndre Henry and J’Saan Strover scored from midrange and in the paint. The three combined for 41 points.
“They couldn’t keep up with our unselfishness,” Price said. “We played together and showed our drive to win the game.”
Four Pride players scored in double figures and Price missed it by a point.
There was much anticipation surrounding the state-final rematch. The image of Pinnacle hoisting the trophy last February still burns in the minds of Graham and Price.
“Just being in the last state-championship game and losing to them, it always feels good to get redemption,” Graham said. “Now we know we can play with them. They’re a really good team and it’s likely we will see them in the finals.”
The Pride also hosted the Pioneers last November and that game, too, was a blowout. Mountain Pointe cruised to an 81-45 victory, but in that one the Pioneers were short-handed because several players were still playing football in the playoffs.
This time, Pinnacle was at full strength.
The dominating win showed the state and the nation that Mountain Pointe has what it takes to make another run at the state title. With talented, experienced players, the Pride appear to be ready to turn that corner that Price and Graham spoke of in the team meeting.
“We have to continue to play together and show everybody that we are as good as we say we are,” Price said. “We need to continue to play together.
“If we do that, nobody in the state can beat us.”