It was never going to happen.
There was no way Friday night’s Corona del Sol Mountain Pointe boys basketball game was going to match the level of play the last time the two teams tipped off at Corona’s Sam Duane Gymnasium.
People showed up just in case this year’s meeting came anywhere close to the double overtime thriller the Aztecs and Pride put on in the Division I playoffs a year ago.
The capacity crowd — there were actually about 25 people left outside because of the fire code — did the best to match last year’s atmosphere but the game never really materialized as the top-ranked Aztecs (23-1) won 69-44 to all but eliminate the Pride from the postseason.
“I told (the players) to suck in that atmosphere and feed off it,” Pride coach Hosea Graham said. “We played hard. We never gave into them or the surroundings, but they went on their typical Corona run at the end of the quarter to take control. They weren’t comfortable until the later stages of the game.
“I like the way we played, but we had five turnovers in the third quarter and (Corona) scored on each one of them. That’s what good teams do — take advantage of your miscues and execute on their end.”
The Pride (8-12) trailed 31-21 at the half and 46-31 after three quarter as the Aztecs, who played without big man Connor MacDougall (ankle), did enough to keep their top billing in place heading into the final week of the regular season.
“We knew the atmosphere was going to be crazy, but we’ve played in a lot of big games so we just concentrated on getting stops early,” said senior Casey Benson, who finished with eight points. “We were able to do that and score on our end to build a lead.”
The Pride was led by Emmanuel Butler’s 13 points, while Isaiah Ledford added 10. Corona’s Dane Kuiper had a big game with 19 points and Jarrett Givens finished with 11.
It’s been a disappointing end for the Pride in Graham’s first year as they’ve lost eight of nine games before hosting Gilbert on Wednesday and playing at Chandler on Thursday.
“The talent is there,” Butler said. “We just have to trust each other more. We show it at times, but we haven’t put it together for a whole game very often.”
Graham hasn’t wavered on his message to the players and has seen it sink in with the underclassmen as the program moves forward.
“It’s there; it really is,” Graham said. “The JV has it going, but we’ve just played team basketball (on varsity). We have two games left and they’ll play hard. I hope they see these two games as an opportunity to finish strong.”
Butler, who is headed to Northern Arizona on a football scholarship, has been the top player all year (15.0 points and 11.2 rebounds), but there have been several other pleasant surprises as Khalil Salahuddin (8.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, tough defense), Tyler Evans (19 3 pointers) and Cortez Johnson (4.5 points) have had shining moments while Chris Davis (8.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.0 blocks) has been solid since becoming eligible in January.
“I knew we’d have struggles (in the first year) and there are always games as a coach you know you should have won that got away,” Graham said. “The thing I can say is they never played with their head down.”
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