Candice Gonzales just stood back, arms crossed, watching her Gilbert Mesquite girls basketball team celebrate on the court at Grand Canyon University Arena.
It was certainly a well-deserved celebration.
Gonzales’ squad finished the season with a 31-1 record. And unlike a year ago, this season ended with a win in the state championship game. Not only that, but it was the first state title in the program’s 20-year history.
Top-seeded Mesquite pulled away in the second half, as it often has done this season, in a 59-38 win over No. 3 Phoenix Sierra Linda in Monday’s 5A Conference final.
“When you enter each game, and people want to beat you every game, you’ve got to work hard to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Gonzales said. “It was, ‘Remember where we finished last year, make sure we don’t finish there again.’ ”
It was a far different mood from the final game of the 2015-16 season, when Mesquite lost to Chandler Hamilton in the Division I championship.
The wait for the illusive first championship didn’t last much longer. But first, Mesquite had a tough foe in an athletic Sierra Linda squad.
At the half, Mesquite held a slim three-point lead. Sierra Linda (27-3) led for much of the first quarter and did its best to hang with its challenging opponent.
But in the second half, Mesquite switched to a 2-3 zone defense, after playing man-to-man for the first two quarters. The change worked, as it held Sierra Linda to 10 points and four made field goals in the last two quarters.
“We wanted to come out with something different,” Gonzales said. “It did it for us.”
Mesquite junior guard Shaylee Gonzales, the coach’s daughter, led the way with 21 points, while fellow junior guard Lindsey VanAllen added 20 points, despite playing much of the second half in foul trouble.
Junior forward Lauren Gustin had a big night under the basket for Mesquite, scoring 12 points and pulling down 21 rebounds.
Even as late as the fourth quarter, Sierra Linda remained within striking distance, trailing by 11 points entering the period. But Mesquite made its first four shots of the fourth, stretching its lead to 16 and cruising down the final stretch.
“We worked so hard for this opportunity. We went out, killed it, played tough defense,” Shaylee Gonzales said. “Last year, we fell short, and we were really determined to come back here again.”
Perhaps it was the chemistry of its top players that allowed Mesquite to handle opponents so easily this winter, which included winning each of its last 16 games by at least 20 points.
Shaylee Gonzalez and VanAllen have played together since they were 8 years old, while many of the team’s other players have played with them outside of high school, as well.
“They’ve been playing together for a long time,” Candice Gonzales said. “They love each other, they play well together and you can just see the chemistry.”