CHANDLER — It looked like a typical girls basketball game for Phoenix St. Mary’s through two quarters against Orlando Dr. Phillips at the Nike Tournament of Champions on Thursday at Chandler Hamilton High.
Until, you know, St. Mary’s actually had to play the second half.
After St. Mary’s (9-0) wafted through the early part of the regular season unchallenged, the defending national champs had to actually do some work to hold off Dr. Phillips in a 63-52 win to start tournament play.
St. Mary’s takes on Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei at 5:30 p.m. Friday at Hamilton for a spot in the Division E finals. Mater Dei won the two national titles before St. Mary’s won the championship last year.
“This one wasn’t real pretty,” St. Mary’s coach Curtis Ekmark said. “But hey, when you think of the fact that we just played one of the best teams in the country and won by double digits on a night where we really didn’t shoot it that well, all in all, I’ll take it.”
Whatever shooting problems St. Mary’s was having against a team ranked 11th in the country didn’t make much difference in the first half, which St. Mary’s finished up 38-22.
But then the third quarter rolled around, and shots kept rolling out.
St. Mary’s scored just two points in the first six minutes of the third quarter. The top team in USA Today‘s Super 25 rankings patiently ran its offense to find open jumpers for star junior Courtney Ekmark, but they wouldn’t fall. Even at the free-throw line, a lid was kept on the hoop.
In the meantime, Dr. Phillips (11-2) finally solved the St. Mary’s full-court press that had wreaked havoc in the first half, scoring a series of quick-strike buckets to pull within 40-35.
Salvation came from 6-foot-1 forward Chantel Osahar, who sank a 3-pointer from the top of the key to resuscitate the St. Mary’s offense. St. Mary’s closed the quarter on a 8-4 run to lead by nine entering the final period.
“I think it gave us a little boost,” Osahor said of her deep shot, one she doesn’t take too often. “All of us do it. It was a perfect time, because we needed it. It just happened to be me.”
St. Mary’s called off its press in the fourth quarter, opting for a half-court man-to-man defense. The offense scored enough to keep Dr. Phillips at bay.
Despite a frustrating shooting night, Ekmark scored 24 points to lead all scorers, and Chloe Johnson added 13 points.
All that after walking out of their last final exam Thursday and onto a court surrounded by legions of college scouts.
“I think we’re going to calm down now,” Osahor said. “We’ve learned from this. It’s over, we’ve got the win. We’ve just got to move on and play Mater Dei. I think we’ll be better tomorrow.”