This time, there was no holding back.
An illness kept Saben Lee out of the state quarterfinals last year, and Tempe Corona del Sol’s streak of four consecutive state titles was done.
Lee was back on the big stage Thursday night, blocking shots, knocking down free throws, making steals, dunking with ease, leading top-seed Corona del Sol back to the 6A Conference boys basketball state final with an 85-66 semifinal victory over No. 4 Laveen Cesar Chavez at Gila River Arena.
Corona del Sol (26-3) will play No. 2 Chandler Basha (29-1) for the first time this season at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Grand Canyon University Arena.
Lee, who signed with Vanderbilt, took over the game in the final quarter, finishing with 39 points and helping keep Cesar Chavez (24-5) from scoring during a 3-minute stretch. Showing toughness, the senior guard continually got to the line, making 19 of 20 free throws.
Last year, without Lee, the Aztecs’ season ended in the quarterfinals to Phoenix Sunnyslope.
“I definitely wanted to come back and make a statement for missing it last year,” said Lee, who also had 12 rebounds, eight steals and three blocks. “We just need to stay together, play together and on the defensive end, get rebounds.”
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With two big men not able to play, Lee and senior guard Alex Barcello got help from a couple of freshmen, looking ready to carry the torch those guys will pass down after Tuesday.
Coach Neil MacDonald moved his backup point guard, 6-foot-3 freshman Dalen Terry, to the post. Terry had five points and five rebounds.
Freshman Eric Blackwell III, a 6-foot freshman guard, had 14 points, making both 3-pointers he took. He also had seven rebounds.
As usual, Barcello was steady, scoring 20 points and handing out five assists. He had nine points during a 3-minute stretch in the third quarter that helped Corona del Sol take a six-point lead and slow down Cesar Chavez.
But it was all Lee in the final 11 minutes, including the last 3 of the third quarter, when he scored a jumper, got point guard Donald Carter to commit his fourth foul on a 3-point try, knocking down the three free throws, blocking a shot and nailing two more free throws for a 58-49 lead.
Cesar Chavez went through a long scoring drought in the final quarter.
Junior guard Michael Rogers scored 19 points and grabbed eight rebounds for Cesar Chavez. Forward Kaleb Martin added 17 points. Demond Hart had 11 rebounds for Chavez.
“He did what he needed to do, and that was outstanding,” MacDonald said about Lee. “I think winning a championship is what’s driving him. I’m sure (missing last year’s playoff game) is in the back of his mind. But it’s about this team, and he wants to win a championship.”
Chandler Basha 43, Phoenix Desert Vista 38
Chandler Basha had 23 points in the first 13 minutes.
It managed only 20 more the rest of the game.
But it didn’t get to 29 wins with a fast-paced, offensive attack.
Basha dug in defensively, held Phoenix Desert Vista’s leading scorer to just two dunks, and got the ball to its big man during crunch time Thursday night to advance to the 6A Conference state final for the first time in school history.
Senior Gabe McGlothan scored six huge points during a 4-minute stretch in the final quarter, and Basha held on for a 43-38 semifinal victory at Gila River Arena.
“We stayed poised and executed down the stretch when it mattered,” said McGlothan, a 6-foot-7 post player who had 17 points and seven rebounds. “It was whoever had the best shot, take it.”
Basha’s big-game experience showed up in the semifinals with McGlothan and guard Terrell Brown and Coleson Struhs all experiencing bitter defeat last year in the semifinals to Mesa, the eventual champion.
“It stung last year losing to Mesa in the semifinals,” McGlothan said. “We really want to go after it. We’re not going to end the season without a bang.”
Desert Vista (19-6), led by senior swingman Caleb Simmons’ 19 points, put as much pressure as possible to make it tough for Basha, after the Bears had taken a 23-14 lead on a Brown layup with 5:08 left in the second quarter.
Basha didn’t score the rest of the half, making five consecutive turnovers. Desert Vista got within one to finish the half with Simmons beating the buzzer for a 3-pointer.
Basha never let Desert Vista get even, despite the Thunder trapping and double-teaming the man with the ball in the second half.
Basha held Desert Vista to seven points in the third quarter and nine in the final 8 minutes, limiting the Thunder to 33.3 percent shooting and forcing 10 turnovers.
Junior wing Wesley Harris, who led Desert Vista in scoring this season averaging 16 points, never got untracked. He dunked twice, but attempted no other shots.
“We got stops when we needed to,” coach Mike Grothaus said. “We got stops when we needed to. Their pressure bothered us a little bit. But we were able to withstand it. This is a veteran group that knows what they want.”
Brown, an All-Arizona wide receiver in football who is going to Northern Arizona to play that sport, overcame eight turnovers with 11 points, five assists, two blocks and two steals.
“I really couldn’t know anything down, so I wanted to get Gabe going,” said Brown, who assisted on McGlothan’s three fourth-quarter field goals. “It’s a different environment. Most of the players have never played on this court. But we played well as a team.”