Millennium players

Millennium players celebrate after winning the championship against Gilbert 66-40 in Arizona AIA Conference 5A girls basketball on February 25 at Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe. (West Valley View photo by Pablo Robles)

The Millennium girls basketball team dominated to win the state title, while the boys fell short during the 5A state championship games on February 25.

The girls beat Gilbert 66-40 while the boys fell just one point short, losing to Gilbert 38-37.

The girls were runners up two years ago and exited early from the 6A semifinals last season. Finally hoisting the championship trophy was a picture-perfect ending.

“I honestly didn’t know how to react to it to be honest. I didn’t know whether to cry or to be happy,” Dominique Phillips said.

The Millennium girls came into the finals intent to hold Gilbert to a season-low 40 points or less. Millennium allowed exactly 40.

Top-scoring Gilbert seniors Hanna and Haley Cavinder dominated nearly every backcourt duo they faced all season. Millennium fought through screens and didn’t allow either twin much space for three-pointers from the corners. Coach Courtland Rojeck said the ultimate goal was to take the ball out of the pair’s hands as much as possible.

“I said very clearly after we knew we were playing them, ‘Look, goal No. 1: these girls don’t play. We make their life really hard. They come off screens, we’re doubling them. They’re trying to cut we’re jamming them,” Rojeck said.

Just like in its dominating semifinal win the week before, Millennium utilized its size advantage, especially on offense. Its guards made solid entry passes into the post, where teammates could either hit easy layups or pass out to open shooters if double-teamed.

Among the players scoring well was Phillips, whose 10 points in the first quarter, along with physical defense, brought Millennium to a 16-3 lead early.

“We definitely talked in the locker room about getting a strong lead, and coming out to start like we never came out before, because this is our last year to do it, and we were ready,” she said.

In the second quarter, Gilbert attacked the basket with more confidence, and cut Millennium’s lead to 25-20 at half.

But, just as Millennium started the game, it came out quick to start the third quarter after the break, stretching the lead to 18 by the end of the period, mostly with jumpers from the outside. Down big, Gilbert began running a full-court press, causing some turnovers and havoc in Millennium’s backcourt.

However, when Millennium did get through the traffic, it capitalized with more jumpers and easy lay ups. All the while, it continued its defensive pressure.

Nurturing a lead that reached as high as 20 points in the fourth quarter, Millennium slowed the pace of its play, forcing Gilbert into mistakes. Drawing fouls and finding easy space in passes behind the press, it closed the game out hitting lay ups in transition.

In the last 2 minutes, Gilbert began desperately fouling to stop the clock and make Millennium shoot free throws. But, Millennium hit enough foul shots and closed the game out dancing and celebrating a title.

After celebrating with friends, family and classmates, Millennium’s girls took to the stands and were the boys’ biggest cheerleaders.

Boys fall short

Despite a late lead, the young Millennium boys fell short by the narrowest of margins, losing 38-37, also to Gilbert High.

Unlike the girls, Millennium’s boys did not have the same pronounced size advantage. Sophomore DaRon Holmes, who often towered over opponents throughout the season, was matched stride-for-stride by Gilbert senior Carson Towt.

However, it played defense at the same level of intensity, and held Gilbert to fewer points than the girls did. The Tigers’ offense just couldn’t get over the hump.

The beginning of the game was a back-and-forth defensive struggle. Towt and the scrappy Gilbert perimeter defenders took away most of Millennium’s ability to dump the ball into the paint and score easy buckets on post moves. Meanwhile, Millennium also played solid defense near the basket, forcing Gilbert into contested jumpers early to secure a 21-16 lead at halftime.

Millennium grew the lead to as much as 12 mid-way through the third quarter. However, Gilbert scrapped to trim the lead to just seven entering the fourth.

Gilbert, who lost just one game all season to 6A-champion Pinnacle, hadn’t been down that big in such a pressure-filled situation, but knew it had to rely on its seniors.

“I wasn’t feeling good,” Gilbert coach Jay Caserio said. “I mean, I thought we could come back but I wasn’t feeling good about it. We’ve been a couple of points down here and there but nothing like that.”

Gilbert dominated the fourth quarter with its own defense. Millennium did not score for over 5 minutes to start the quarter, while Gilbert began getting lay ups in transition off steals.

Down multiple possessions with less than a minute remaining, Millennium had to foul desperately to get the ball back. Gilbert hit several free throws to keep the lead, but not enough to close the door completely.

With mere seconds left, down three points, Millennium missed a three-point attempt to tie the game, came up with the rebound, and hit a put-back lay up at the basket at the buzzer, but two points was not enough, and Gilbert prevailed.

“It was a crazy game, an intense game. It just sucks,” sophomore Coleman Fields.

The Millennium players were visibly upset following the loss, and many refused to hold the runner-up trophy in the team picture. But, the conclusion of the 2018-19 season is not the end of the group’s run. The Tigers will graduate three seniors and retain each of their top six scorers.

Fields said that the loss hurts now, but a runner-up finish is going to make it even sweeter if the Tiger boys can claim the title in 2020.

“Today’s going to be in the back of our minds all summer, and it’s going to be bittersweet for whoever we play next year, because we’re coming different,” Fields said. “I expect us to be right back at this point again.”