Twenty-seven games into the season and on the verge of the playoff opener on Thursday, Mountain Pointe still doesn’t know exactly who it is.
It has a clue. It has talent. It has high expectations. It had a hot start and a hot finish but hit a puzzling mid-season skid. And while it comes into the playoffs on an eight-game streak as the No. 5 seed, hosting No. 12 Mesa at 7 p.m. on Feb. 14, several games during the closing eight-win stretch were tight against so-so teams.
“It’s been a rollercoaster with emotional highs, emotional lows, and you truly never know what’s coming each day of practice and every game,” Pride coach Kirk Fauske said.
In 27 games, Fauske said the Pride never had their roster at full capacity. Somebody always was injured, ill or missed games for various reasons.
Graham sat for seven games after Mountain Pointe’s 70-53 upset loss at rival Desert Vista, due to “personal issues” and a tweaked knee. He returned, but off the bench, in the Pride’s final regular-season game. Starters DeAndre Henry, Khalid Price and others suffered minor injuries through the season, as well.
Despite what Graham described as “a little bit of dysfunction,” the Pride earned a chance to win the region title in their last game against once-powerful Corona del Sol. It took two free throws by Pride junior Daevin Celaya to put away the Aztecs on senior night in front of an excited home crowd and give the Pride their first 6A Central championship since 2005.
Graham knocked off some rust in that game, but did not shoot in the first half. He played better in the second half but the Pride were hindered because Price, their floor leader, sat with a sprained thumb.
Fauske said both seniors should be ready for the playoffs.
The Pride reached the 6A state-championship game last season and had returning starters Price and Graham, both Division 1 prospects, back. Graham, a 6-foot-10 forward-center, is going to Arizona State.
They won nine games by huge margins to open the season, including the Phoenix Union High School District’s Coyote Classic and a surprising 17-point blowout of defending state-champion Pinnacle at home, the team they’d lost to in the 6A title game last spring.
That vaulted the Pride to No. 11 in the MaxPreps national rankings.
Then, after a blowout win over North High, the Pride lost three consecutive games to 6A foes and went 2-2 in a holiday tournament in California, extending their skid to five in seven games.
Fauske said players were competing harder in practice than on game day, to the chagrin of the staff, which was constantly searching for answers.
“A few bounces of the ball go our way, and instead of 21-6 we could be 24-3 and everyone’s celebrating,” Fauske said. “Last year, Khalid had four game winners at the buzzer, so maybe our record was higher than it could have been. That’s just kind of how a season can go, and you have to fight through it.”
Pressure did not make the Pride to wilt but it added a stressor to already-high expectations.
“I had some exposure to that with some of the tournaments and stuff I did this summer, so I was kind of used to it, but I think we probably were a little nervous,” Graham said. “I think we fought through it, though, so we’re ready to play now.”
The Corona win epitomized Mountain Pointe’s season. MP built an early lead, lost it and had to battle back. Celaya said the lessons learned through the ups and downs have drawn the Pride closer. He believes they are peaking at the right time.
“When we were down 13 at half (to the Aztecs), coach told us we knew exactly how to get back,” Celaya said. “We lost three in a row and bounced back from that, and won a bunch in a row to win the region. We’re all good.
“I’m so proud. I’ve never been part of a team that has been so up and so down but stayed as a unit throughout it all. We’re ready to see what’s next.”