St. Mary's girls looking to repeat last season's feat

St. Mary's girls looking to repeat last season's feat

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St. Mary's girls looking to repeat last season's feat

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The Nike Tournament of Champions has been a springboard for national title hopes for the six years Phoenix St. Mary’s has participated in it.

It took St. Mary’s years just to get placed in the top bracket, and last year the Knights broke through, winning the Joe Smith Division, which vaulted them into the national title conversation. St. Mary’s finished the year 30-0 and national champs.

“Historically and traditionally, the winner of this has the national championship to lose,” coach Curtis Ekmark said.

St. Mary’s repeat bid begins today at Chandler Hamilton, and will come against what Ekmark thinks is the most difficult field assembled. The divisions have been shrunk to eight teams instead of 16, meaning teams must win just three games instead of four to take a title.

But the price of that is a more stacked field.

“I told the kids we might as well win, because even if you lose you’re going to end up with really hard games,” Ekmark said.

There are 12 divisions, and St. Mary’s is in Division E. In the opening round, the Knights face Orlando Dr. Phillips, which is ranked 11th in the latest USA Today rankings. (St. Mary’s is ranked No.1.) Also in the Division E field are third-ranked Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei, eighth-ranked Riverdale Baptist (Md.), 10th-ranked Bishop O’Dowd (Calif.), 13th-ranked Rock Bridge (Mo.) and 21st-ranked Ossining (N.Y.).

Ekmark is concerned about all of them, but none more so than the game directly in front of him against Dr. Phillips. The Panthers are the defending Class 8A champs in Florida and are 11-1 this season, with their only loss coming to a team in Oregon. Dr. Phillips has won a whopping 52 consecutive games against teams in Florida.

“They do to teams in Florida what we do to teams here in Arizona,” Ekmark said.

Dr. Phillips, and the rest of the tournament itself, will be the first real challenge for St. Mary’s. The Knights are 8-0, with its closest win a 50-32 victory over St. George (Utah) Dixie at a tournament earlier in the season.

St. Mary’s won that tournament — after a three-games-in-three-days stretch similar to what it will face at Nike — after beating Division I opponent Chandler 76-50. University of Connecticut-bound junior Courtney Ekmark had 37 points, and University of Washington commit Chantel Osahor had 16 rebounds and 12 assists for one of the most unlikely double-doubles possible.

“It was an incredibly hostile environment, and I thought our girls handled it really well,” coach Ekmark said.

The Knights’ starters have rarely had to play past the first half, so Ekmark is concerned about his team’s conditioning. St. Mary’s also has been in finals week since Monday, so Ekmark has been unable to hold full practices. His players will literally walk out of their last exam and head over the Hamilton to start tournament play.

“I’m really concerned about the first game in particular,” Ekmark said. “If we can get that first game under our belt and get some sleep on Friday.”

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