Steve Carter Photo/Special to the Gila Herald: The Pima Roughriders captured the 2A Boys State Basketball Championship 47-37 over the Highland Prep Honey Badgers. It is the first time in 25 years a public school has won the championship and the first time for Pima since 1984.

Pima wins first state basketball championship in 39 years

By Jon Johnson

Jon Johnson Video/Gila Herald

PHOENIX – The “Madhouse on McDowell” otherwise known as Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum was the site for the 2023 Arizona Interscholastic Association Basketball Championships on Saturday, and the Pima Roughriders became the first public school in 25 years to win the 2A State Boys Basketball Championship with a 47-37 victory over the Highland Prep Honey Badgers.

“We’ve been close for a while now,” said Pima head basketball coach Cliff Thompson. “I just want to shout out to all the teams that came before us. This team was able to stand on their shoulders.”   

The championship was Pima’s first in basketball since 1984. However, for a significant number of players on the team, it was their second state championship this school year after winning the 2A Football Championship as well.

“It’s so cool, like you said, to come out and with both of them,” said Pima center Seth Russell (who was the starting quarterback on the football team). To go out on a big bang, I mean, we’ve been preparing for this – we’ve played together for almost 10 years now . . . It just came down to this moment right here to go and get that gold ball and bring it home.” 

Steve Carter Photo/Special to the Gila Herald: Players celebrate the championship.

Pima’s big three of Pierce and Grant Ashby and Garrett Curtis all played more than 31 of the 32 minutes, with Grant sitting only the final 26 seconds after the game had been decided. Starting center Seth Russell also barely sat, and had 28 minutes of game time. 

Grant led the team in scoring with 12 points on 5-8 shooting and 1-4 from the free throw line; he also had 8 total rebounds (3 offensive, 5 defensive). Garrett Curtis had 11 points on 5-13 shooting with 9 rebounds; Seth Russell had 10 points on 4-17 shooting with 9 rebounds, and Pierce Ashby had 6 points on 3-14 shooting with 8 rebounds and 7 blocks. Coy Miller finished with 3 points and 3 assists; Nathan Skiba and Wyatt Wiltbank both had 2 points each, and Leland Thompson finished the game with his sole point of the contest. 

“We’re a grinding team,” coach Thompson said. “We defend and then we defend some more, and when things get rough we decide to play some more defense. They had 22 points after three quarters and that team averages probably 70, 80 points a game. And they scored 37. I think the most we gave up in the tournament was 43. They just made a determination ‘we’re going to play defense and we’re going to get after it.'”

Steve Carter Photo/Special to the Gila Herald: Seth Russell finished with 10 points and 9 rebounds.

Highland Prep head coach Trent Hill complimented Pima on its play and said he hopes his players learn from the experience. 

“Pima did a really good job of forcing us to play their game,” coach Hill said. “We actually got them to shoot the ball where I wanted them to, (but) over time we just couldn’t get the rebounds. They dominated on the rebounds; they’d get two, three offensive rebounds and then get a little closer and a little closer each time until they get a layup. But hats off to them. That’s a good group that’s been through a lot together for Pima, and I’m hoping that we learn something from that group.   

For Highland Prep, Kohen Hill led the way with a game-high 23 points on 9-21 shooting (5-15 from 3-point). Presley Ibeh had 10 points on 3-6 shooting, and Darrell Green Jr. had 10 rebounds. Omar Weathersby and Aeden Calini both finished with 2 points each. 

Steve Carter Photo/Special to the Gila Herald: Garrett Curtis nails a 3-pointer late in the second to put Pima up 17-14 at the half.

Pima owned the points in the paint (30-12) and also scored 16 points on fast breaks opposed to just 3 points for Highland Prep. 

Pima (12-0 region, 14-0 conference, 26-3 overall) lost only three times all season; 36-54 to the much larger Rock Canyon out of Colorado, 56-66 to 5A Campo Verde, and 51-53 to 3A State Champion Valley Christian.  

Pima 47 Highland Prep 37

Steve Carter Photo/Special to the Gila Herald: Pierce Ashby goes in for two. Pierce finished with 6 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 blocks.

While the game was close throughout, Pima never trailed and was only tied for 3:38 of game time. 

Pima’s defense held Highland Prep to just two field goals in the opening period of play as they swarmed their opponents. Guards Coy Miller, Leland Thompson, and Keegan Corona latched onto Honey Badger Kohen Hill while Grant and Pierce Ashby, Seth Russell, and Garrett Curtis all helped to deal with Honey Badger Presley Ibeh. 

Pounding the paint and defense were key for Pima and they came out and did both in the first period. Pierce Ashby got the first of seven blocks in the game and it quickly turned into points as Coy Miller picked up the loose ball and pushed it up to Grant Ashby who put it home for 2. The action of a Pierce block ending with a Grant score would occur two more times on the night. 

Steve Carter Photo/Special to the Gila Herald: Coy Miller drives on his man.

However, Pima struggled early and missed several shots down low while the athletic Honey Badgers hounded the Pima players in the paint. Even so, they were a hair-trigger away from doubling up Highland Prep after one period, but Pierce’s shot came just as the buzzer sounded and Pima had to settle for an 8-5 lead. 

Garrett Curtis started and finished the scoring for Pima in the second period and epitomized its inside/outside game by himself. The 6’4 forward started the period with a mid-range jump shot for the score and ended it with a timely 3-pointer to put Pima up by five. The Roughriders would ultimately go into the break up 17-14 in the closely contested match. 

In the third Garrett showed off his low-post moves and stretched Pima’s lead to five. Then it was Kohen Hill’s time to step up and he hit a deep bomb for 3 and then tied the game on a jumper. 

Steve Carter Photo/Special to the Gila Herald: Seth Russell looks to score.

With the game tied at 19 apiece in the third, both teams failed to score on subsequent possessions. Highland Prep was using an offense with one player at the top of the key attempting to take their defender one-on-one while the other players spread out in the four corners. 

Highland Prep kept trying to isolate its 6’0 junior point guard Darius McKnight with Pima’s 6’7 forward Pierce Ashby as his defender. McKnight attempted to drive the land and just like Hill before him, he was rejected by Pierce. The ball stayed in play and Grant Ashby scored on a fast-break layup the other way to put Pima up 21-19. And on the very next possession, Pierce misdirected McKnight’s pass, which then went off Omar Weathersby and out of bounds for a second consecutive turnover.

Russell then scored down low, and Grant hit a 3-pointer off a scramble to put Pima up 26-19 with 2:28 left in the third. Hill came back with a 3-pointer, but Pima was up at the end of the third, 28-22.    

Steve Carter Photo/Special to the Gila Herald: Highland Prep won the tip but that was it.

Starting from the end of the third period to about halfway through the fourth, Pima outscored Highland Prep on an 11-0 run, culminating with a 13-point lead with 4:13 left in the game. Garrett Curtis, Seth Russell, and Grant Ashby all scored in the stretch to all but put the game out of reach. 

Hill continued to nail 3’s at the very end, but Pierce put the nail in the coffin when he slammed it home with authority and Pima took home the championship 47-27 over Highland Prep.   

Steve Carter Photo/Special to the Gila Herald: Highland Prep finished in second place.

Coach Thompson lauded his team’s defense and said it has been ingrained in them over the years through teams of the past. 

“About eight or nine years ago, we had a team that really bought into what we were doing, and really took this defensive philosophy that we talk about and got after it and did what we asked them to do,” coach Thompson said. “That turned around our program and we’ve been successful since . . . We’ve been to the final four or higher eight of the last nine years. And that’s because of the kids and the time and work they put in and those teams before. Because now our guys come in with the expectation that they know what’s required of them to get after it and play for us, so I want all of them to know they have a part in this championship.”

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Steve Carter Photo/Special to the Gila Herald: Your 2023 2A State Boys Basketball Champions, the Pima Roughriders.