Valley Vista girls win school’s first state sports title

Valley Vista’s Rysha Banner (#2) calls a play against Goodyear Millennium in the 6A championship game Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017 at Grand Canyon University Arena in Phoenix. (Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps)

Richard Smith
West Valley Preps

The Valley Vista girls basketball season began with tale of overwhelming talent, potential and sights set on the program’s first championship.

It ended Tuesday night with that elusive state title in hand — but earned the old school Monsoon girls hoops way. Rachel Matakas team won the 6A tournament — in particular the last two games — with relentless defensive pressure and grit.

No. 3 seed Valley Vista (24-6) scored 79 points in its final two games, but allowed a mere 66. In Tuesday’s final at GCU Arena in Phoenix the Monsoon’s pressure defense and anticipation forced rival Goodyear Millennium into 22 turnovers and fueled a 44-36 victory.

“The reason why I focus on defense is because basketball has really become an offensive game. Kids don’t take pride in defense,” Valley Vista Coach Rachel Matakas said. “When you can teach a group of kids to play defense — and they did not buy into it in the beginning. It was not easy. It was like trying to get them to eat brussel sprouts. I’m one that likes to control a game and defense controls the game. It’s like playing chess. It was really good that these kids bought in.”

Much like the 35-30 semifinal slog against Phoenix Mountain Pointe, defense steadied the Monsoon when the game appeared to be slipping away. In this case No. 4 seed Millennium (24-8) led for only about a minute of the contest but has scored five straight points to tie it at 30 with 6:10 remaining.

Valley Vista’s Taylor Chavez (#3) attempts to save a ball from going out of bounds against Millennium in the 6A championship game Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017 at Grand Canyon University Arena in Phoenix. (Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps)

At 32-30 Monsoon, junior guard Rysha Banner picked off a pass and drove 75 feet for a layup. At 38-32 another steal sent junior Taylor Chavez on the break and she made one free throw after getting fouled.

“In the O’Connor game to start the playoffs we weren’t playing good defense and we were up by only one, I think. At halftime coach said we really need to commit to defense. We ended up having a really good second half and realized we could be a good defensive team. We’ve stuck to that,” Chavez said.

The Tigers forced a turnover down 41-34 with 50 seconds remaining but could not score. Senior guard Lauryn Satterwhite missed the front end of a one-and-one but Chavez picked off a pass in the backcourt with 35 seconds left.

Junior guard Clarissa Rodarte sealed it with two free throws. In all, the Monsoon had 14 steals and never let the Tigers twin posts get comfortable, as Millennium shot 31 percent.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is, defense wears down offense. When you wearing people down, they don’t have the leg strength to shoot the ball. We were wearing them down,” Coach Matakas said. “We talked about it — how you’re not going to be up 20. It’s like making fine wine, it doesn’t happen in one day. On the offensive end we wanted to pass it around and make them read it and use their legs on both ends.”

When Valley Vista was not winning with defense, it was protecting it lead with another unglamorous skill — passing. Rodarte started the fourth with a steal and pass ahead to the sprinting Banner for a layup and 30-25 lead.

Senior forward Kiara Edwards broke the 30-30 tie by laying in a pick and roll feed from Chavez. Banner whipped a pass with some velocity to Chavez cutting through the lane for a spinning layup and 36-32 lead.

Valley Vista’s Lauryn Satterwhite (#1) drives to the basket against Millennium in the 6A championship game Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017 at Grand Canyon University Arena in Phoenix. (Jacob Stanek/Independent Newsmedia)

In that respect, Satterwhite’s return may have inspired her teammates feeds. The Northwestern-bound point guard is recovering from a torn ACL last year and had not played a full game for Valley Vista since Dec. 18.

“Coach trusted me out there. There was a little bit of doubt. But my coaches gave me faith and my team gave me faith. I put that feeling of doubt aside when I went out there.” Satterwhite said. “It was a huge blessing and an awesome feeling to play my last high school game with these girls.”

She was cleared to play earlier Tuesday and entered the game in the second quarter. While clearly not at 100 percent, Satterwhite played 22 minutes and led the team with five assists while chipping in five boards.

Two of those feeds went to Chavez for layups in the third quarter — an over the shoulder bullet that traveled half the court and a lob where Chavez got a screen, cut back door and made a midair layup.

“It goes back to when we were younger and the chemistry we have. ‘L’ is a hell of an athlete. She’s smart and sees the floor very well,” Edwards said. “When we found out she was going to be playing it was kind of a weight off our shoulders. We thought we had it without her, but she helped a lot.”

That second bucket gave the Monsoon a 23-18 lead. But as was the case until the final minutes, a young Millennium team — playing one senior, one junior, two sophomores and two freshmen — did not get overwhelmed.

The Tigers grabbed their only lead at 25-24 on sophomore Alania Diggs’ putback late in the third. Layups by Chavez and Banner regained a 28-25 advantage for Valley Vista after three.

That was the story all night, as the juniors poured in a combined 33 points. Chavez led all scorers with 17 and harassed star Millennium sophomore Dominique Phillips into a 5 for 19 shooting night.

But Banner was the revelation Tuesday with 16 points and six steals. She was the only player to make more than half of her shots, slipping through the cracks of the Millennium defense for seven buckets on 11 attempts.

“I knew it would come down to smart decisions and controlling the tempo as a point guard,” Banner said. “With us being able to switch from press to man-to-man and switching who was guarding their best players, it really distracted them.”

As both programs rose to title contenders in the state’s biggest school division, this West Valley rivalry bloomed in the last three years. Millennium won thee straight games, including the first meeting this year. But Valley Vista now has two in a row.

Tuesday’s win meant a little extra coming against the Tigers. And it may have meant the most to Banner, who played for Millennium as a freshman and sat out most of last year while the schools haggled over her transfer.

“It means a lot, playing against my old friends and teammates. But I really wanted to win a state championship with this group of girls that I’ve been working with.”

Valley Vista’s Kiara Edwards (#24) attempts a shot against Millennium in the 6A championship game Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017 at Grand Canyon University Arena in Phoenix. (Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps)

Matakas is the only coach in school history, through 10 varsity seasons. By her second year, 2009, Valley Vista was in its division’s Final Four.

In 2013 the Monsoon began the painstaking climb through the big school division dominated by the East Valley. They reached the round of 16 in 2014 and 2014.

The 2015 title push ended in the quarterfinals to Millennium. Last year Valley Vista reached the semifinals, only to fall by five to Hamilton.

In their first finals appearance, Valley Vista won the first team sports state championship in school history by playing the brand of basketball that put the program and its coach on the map.

“I’m going to enjoy this one. There’s a lot of people in there that have gone through a lot. This is something that they needed. We’re an AIA all academic team. That’s a team thing. That’s an expectation,” Matakas said.

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