Ryan Callaghan, a 6-foot-7 junior, wasn’t around in late December, when Tucson Salpointe Catholic’s basketball team was beaten badly in four holiday showcase games in Mesa.
But he was there late in Wednesday’s Division II quarterfinal game on a couple of back-door plays for baskets, helping Salpointe advance to the state semifinals with a 60-55 victory over No.3-seed Phoenix Sierra Linda.
Callaghan scored on a dunk after breaking free inside with 1:05 left for a 54-51 lead. He scored again down low with 47 seconds left, giving Salpointe a 56-54 lead.
Sierra Linda (26-3) missed its last five shots – all 3-point attempts – and Salpointe (22-10) went 4 for 4 from the free-throw line. It moves into Thursday’s 3:30 p.m. game against either Avondale Agua Fria or Nogales with a chance to play for the state title for the first time since 1999.
After Christmas, Salpointe traveled to Mountain View to play in the VisitMesa.Com Challenge, losing to Eugene (Ore.) Churchill 83-43, to Mesa Dobson 79-58, to West Hollywood (Calif.) Pacific Hills 69-42 and to Division III Gilbert Christian 66-59.
Guard Cameron Denson was still in football mode. Callaghan didn’t make the trip. Neither did another rotation player. After that, a couple of players quit. But coach Brian Holstrom didn’t give up on those who stuck around.
“We found a team that decided to jell,” Holstrom said. “As much as we got routed, we came home and decided we’re really going to put this together.”
Denson, a point guard who made an early football commitment to the University of Arizona, is in basketball shape, setting the table and getting everybody involved.
Wednesday, Salpointe got out to a 33-23 lead late in the first half and survived Sierra Linda’s full-court traps in the second half.
Guard Jonathan Matthews’ quickness gave Salpointe touble. His 3-pointer with 5:06 left gave Sierra Linda a 46-45 lead. It went back and forth, before 6-4 sophomore Jaylyn Juan scored on a put-back and was fouled with 1:59 left. His three-point play gave Salpointe a 54-51 lead.
Edgar Sarmiento’s 3 with 57 seconds left tied it.
After that, Salpointe worked the ball patiently in Sierra Linda’s double teams and found Callaghan twice inside for easy baskets.
“We made some physical mistakes, trying to make the hero pass,” Holstrom said. “But in the stretches where we were good, we made them pay at crucial times. We found an open man inside. We had opportunities in double teams. We just had to make two passes, instead of one.”