The gym was packed 30 minutes before tipoff. College scouts were in the house.
It was an epic early-season national top-25 match up between No. 12 Mountain Pointe High and visiting Pinnacle, No. 23 in the latest MaxPreps ranking, and the Pride rolled to a 26-point second-half lead in an awesome display of power and walloped the defending 6A state basketball champions, 74-59, Tuesday night in Ahwatukee.
Mountain Pointe (8-0), fueled by solid man-to-man defense and selfless offensive play, made a strong case to move into the national top 10 and left little doubt as to who is the best team in the state at this early juncture. Pinnacle (6-1) was fresh off a win over Shadow Mountain, the defending 4A state champ and regarded as the third giant in Arizona high school hoops.
Four Pride players scored in double figures and a fifth was a point away.
“We weren’t going to let anybody come in our house and punch us in the mouth,” said Pride senior point guard Khalid Price. “We have been waiting to prove that we’re the best team in the state all off season and before this game, so we knew we had to play tough defense because that’s key to us winning.”
Price (9 points, 6 rebounds, 7 assists) played nearly every second until the game was decided. Since walking off the court at Wells Fargo Arena in the title-game loss last March he vowed revenge against the Pioneers, who took the championship he believed the Pride should have won.
With Price applying full-court, intense defense, University of Arizona-commit Nico Mannion, Pinnacle’s senior guard, scored 20 points, six fewer than his average. Price did not allow Mannion many drives to the basket and swiped at every pass to force turnovers.
As the Pride’s lead mounted, Mannion seemed to try to put his team on his shoulders to get it back in the game. The harder he pressed, though, the more turnovers he made and more shots he missed. Mountain Pointe ran off of the rebounds or recoveries to easy baskets, including several spectacular dunks.
Price drove to the lane and dumped the ball inside to 6-foot-10 senior Jalen Graham (20 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 blocked shots) or 6-8 DeAndre Henry (12 points, 9 rebounds) to make post moves.
When Mountain Pointe did settle into a half-court offense, Pinnacle often had a smaller defender guard Graham in the high post with 6-10 Pioneers center Tosh Baker waiting in the paint in what was essentially a double team. Baker has a bigger body than Graham but he could not match Graham’s quickness and footwork. With two dribbles and a spin, Graham nearly always found himself at the rim flushing highlight dunks.
A pair of three-pointers early in the fourth quarter by Mountain Pointe sophomore Jason Kimbrough (15 points) sent the crowd into a frenzy and seemingly broke the Pioneers. With Pinnacle focusing its defense primarily on Graham and Price, Kimbrough was open for spot-up jumpers.
“Jason Kimbrough is the first one in the gym. He’s the last one in the gym,” Pride first-year coach Kirk Fauske said. “We end practice at 7:30, and he doesn’t leave until 8:45 or 9.
“Those shots you saw that he hit, he puts up about 100 or 200 of those after practice. He works so hard and it’s great to see that kid be so successful on a stage like this as a sophomore.”
Despite opening the season 8-0, Fauske said Mountain Pointe had not played up to its standards, specifically allowing too many points.
“In the locker room, Jalen and Khalid had a team meeting and said, ‘This is what we’re doing. We didn’t play well against Basha. We didn’t play well against Hamilton. But we’re going to play well tonight,’ and it’s going to carry us through the rest of the season.”
The Pride’s only flaw was getting sloppy against the Pinnacle press in the closing minutes and allowing the Pioneers to trim a few points off the lead. Still up 20 with less than 2 minutes left, the Pride were still running the court at full-speed, playing pressure defense and even trash-talking a little bit.
Mountain Pointe senior guard J’Shaan Strover, who scored 14 points, said the continued full-on effort was a result of the conditioning and championship-level mindset that Fauske has instilled during practices.
“We’ve been running every practice, putting in work on the track and we’ve been preparing to have games like this,” Strover said. “We’re doing line drills and coach makes sure we touch every line, just for a physical game like this where we’re running up and down the floor and have the stamina to defend hard all game.”
Price said the team is nowhere near as good as the players believe it can be by the end of the season.
“We feel like the best team in the state. This was a step in proving that. It’s all up from here, and I think the unselfish way we played showed that if we play this well, we don’t think any team in the state can beat us,” Price said.
Mountain Pointe travels to North High on Dec. 6. Pinnacle faces Fresno (Calif.) San Joaquin Memorial at Chaparral High in Scottsdale on Dec. 6.