How to mimic a playoff atmosphere in the middle of December goes like this: Pit two of the most prolific girls’ basketball programs in the 5A division against each other on a Friday night, and tab it as the Arizona Interscholastic Association Game of the Week.
The rest will take care of itself, as it did December 14.
In front of a packed home crowd, the Millennium Tigers girls’ basketball team muscled its way to a seventh straight victory with a 50-44 hushing over the equally red-hot Gilbert Tigers.
Millennium was backed by its leading scorer, senior Dominique Phillips, who lead the way with 15 points. Phillips came into the contest scoring an average of 14.8 points per game.
Freshman Trayanna Crisp chimed in with 11 points off the bench, nine of them coming in the big, waning minutes of the fourth quarter. Alexyss Newman, one of head coach Courtland Rojeck’s best scorers, added eight points of her own.
“These games, every time you have two high-profile teams, teams who score a lot, it’s a playoff atmosphere,” Rojeck said. “We know at the end of the day, you have to play defense. I told the girls, if we continue to commit to the defensive end, we will score enough to win the game. I told them before the game, our goal is to hold them under 45 points.
“What were they at, 44? It worked out.”
Millennium knew it would have its hands full in dealing with Gilbert’s senior twin tandem of Haley and Hanna Cavinder.
Entering Friday night, Haley Cavinder was averaging 22.2 points per game, with Hanna trailing at 21.8.
The Millennium defense was stingy enough to hold Hanna Cavinder to just four points, while Haley erupted for 26, including seven three-pointers.
Gilbert players not named Cavinder combined to score 14 points.
“The twins are great players,” Millennium’s senior center Alaina Diggs, a 6-foot-1 roadblock in the paint, said, “but we have a whole great team and we definitely worked hard today to prove that. We were definitely ready for it.”
Locked at 31-31 at the end of the third quarter, Millennium had a quick start to the fourth quarter including Newman’s dagger of a three-pointer to give her team its largest lead of the game at seven points with 3 minutes remaining.
Both teams started the night in a shooting slump, an unusual likelihood given both schools’ ability to routinely shoot its competition out of the gym on any given night.
In Gilbert’s last four games, they have averaged 84 points per game, while Millennium was scoring 87.4 points per game spanning its last five contests.
But after the first quarter on Friday night, Gilbert had a slim 7-5 lead.
An uproarious crowd quickly awakened both teams in the second quarter, as they collectively parted ways with shooting slumps and started hitting the high-percentage shots that had previously rimmed out.
Coming out of the half tied at 17, Millennium’s Newman opened the third quarter with a big three-pointer. Gilbert responded with three consecutive triples of its own to go on an 11-5 run, putting Millennium on its heels for the first time in the game.
But Rojeck and Millennium answered all night to Haley Cavinder’s hot hand, countering Gilbert’s constant small-ball approach by overloading the floor with a mismatch of bigger players.
Diggs, Newman and junior Ali Zelaya routinely share the floor together, and all are at least six-feet tall. The forward Zelaya is Millennium’s tallest player at 6-foot-4.
Millennium further proved Friday night it is a force to be reckoned with in the 5A division, this after last year’s appearance in the semi-finals of the 6A Girls’ Basketball State Championships.
“We’re ready to face anyone,” Diggs said.