The first free throw Chandler Basha shot Wednesday night missed everything: The net, the rim, the backboard. Everything.
The student section at Phoenix Brophy Prep erupted, chanting the two words no player ever wants to hear.
“Air ball. Air ball.”
Basha kept shooting. And missing. Three-point shots. Open jumpers. Nothing would fall. Brophy’s 1-3-1 zone was frustrating the Bears, their passes uncertain, their shots hurried.
Five days earlier, Basha had destroyed Glendale Apollo, 75-44, looking every bit like the best 6A Conference team in the state. But this was a slog. It was tied at 25 at the half, tied at 33 after three quarters, tied at 39 after regulation.
Only after scoring the first eight points in overtime could coach Mike Grothaus breathe a little. Basha was still undefeated, 18-0 after the 53-46 win, survivors more than conquerors.
“I was proud of how we stayed with it,” Grothaus said. “We hung in there even when our shots weren’t falling.”
There’s no dominant team in 6A. A half-dozen teams could win the state title. Tempe Corona del Sol has perhaps the state’s best backcourt in Alex Barcello and Saben Lee. Phoenix Desert Vista is big inside and has a terrific talent in 6-foot-6 junior Wesley Harris. Laveen Cesar Chavez can run teams off the court. Mesa Mountain View, with legendary coach Gary Ernst, always will be difficult in February.
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Then, there’s Basha. At first glance, the Bears are not overly impressive. Senior Terrell Brown leads the team in scoring (14.3 points per game), but he’s better known for his pass-catching ability on the football field. Center Gabe McGlothan is skilled around the basket and puts up good numbers (13.7 points, 9.8 rebounds), but he’s not a guy who wows you with his size or athletic ability.
Truth be told, there’s not a single player on the roster who will play high-level Division I basketball in college.
But Basha does two things exceedingly well: It plays hard, and it plays defense. Those attributes carried Mesa High to the Division I state championship last year, and Basha is on the same path.
“Tonight, we didn’t shoot it well,” Grothaus said after the win over Brophy. “Some guys that usually make shots for us weren’t hitting them. That’s basketball. But every night at this level, I think we can rely on our defense.”
Basha doesn’t do anything special defensively other than to get in your face and stay there. They switch screens and help each other, and when a loose ball hits the floor, even their best players are diving for it, clawing over bodies. Several times against Brophy, Brown hit the floor hard, trying to give Basha an extra possession or two.
“It’s a team-first mentality,” Grothaus said. “In today’s day and age, you’ve got guys that are concerned with their stats but they lost. Or they’ll look at their dunks and say, ‘They were great.’ We care about winning. Every guy on this team wants to do what it takes to win a game. They don’t care who gets the credit. It’s a team game, it always has been, it always will be and that’s what this team embodies. That’s why I love being around them. They’re a great group. They really are.”
It helps that Basha is dominated by upperclassmen who understand the sacrifice needed. The Bears have eight seniors on the roster, including Brown and McGlothan.
“They’ve been there,” Grothaus said. “They’re ready to work every day.”
It’s crazy to think Basha could go undefeated the rest of the season. It still has to play Chandler Hamilton twice – including Friday’s game at Hamilton – Gilbert and Brophy. But when the first free throw is an air ball and the shots don’t fall and the game goes to overtime on the road and the win still comes?
That team can do something special.
“Defend, rebound and execute,” Grothaus said. “Keep it pretty simple. It’s winning basketball. We’re about winning basketball.”