State champs!

Page girls fulfill team goal of winning title

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

GLENDALE, Ariz., March 1, 2012

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(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)

Page Lady Sand Devil Adjabah James kisses the state championship trophy Saturday night as her teammates look on in Glendale, Ariz.

Page Sand Devil Celeste "Boka" Claw (20) reaches in to steal the ball away from Winslow's Mattea Begaii (24) Saturday night during the Division III state championship game at Arena in Glendale. Page defeated Winslow, 46-38.

W hen Page seniors Celeste "Boka" Claw, Adjabah James, Chelsey Rocke, Amber Tso, Erin West and Malarie Williams were in the sixth grade, they started believing that one day they would hoist the elusive golden ball as state champions.

After all, these Lady Sand Devils witnessed many of their childhood idols fall short in 2005, 2007 and 2008 with runner-up finishes in Arizona's Class 4A, then found themselves in the same situation in 2009 and 2010.

"We've had role models when the other high school players were playing and getting runner-up and runner-up and runner-up," Tso said. "We were like, 'We need this state championship. This is our year.'"

And on Saturday at Arena, the Lady Sand Devils (31-2) celebrated that championship moment after defeating perennial power Winslow Lady Bulldogs (24-6), 46-38, for the Division III girls' state title.

"I'm pretty stoked, man," said Page head coach Justin Smith, who led these same seniors, who were sophomores at the time, to a runner-up finish in 2010 against Chandler Seton Catholic, 57-34.

"I wanted it all year because those girls, those seniors, deserve it," he said. "They worked hard for a long time, they put up with a lot of stuff from me and they deserve to win it."

Much like they have done all season, the Lady Sand Devils used their strengths during pressure situations - defense and 3-point shooting - to win the program's third state title since 1999 and 1991.

In the early part of the championship game, both Page and Winslow appeared nervous as the scoreboard indicated a 7-all score at the end of the first period.

First, Winslow's Mattea Begaii drilled a 3-pointer off a Page turnover to put her team on the scoreboard at 3-0 just over a minute into the game.

But it didn't take long for Page to tie the game at 3-all when Rocke also hit a 3-pointer off a Winslow turnover.

Following Rocke's 3-pointer, Page went on a 4-0 run behind penetration plays by Claw, who assisted James for two in the paint, and Williams for a mid-range jumper.

On the ensuing possessions, Winslow's Corey Nez and Halle Hayes each scored in the paint to knot the game at 7-all.

Winslow's Hayes opened the second period by grabbing an offensive rebound and scoring on the put-back for a 9-7 lead.

Rocke and Williams each drew fouls and went 1-2 at the free-throw line for the 9-all tie with 5:13 left in the second.

The Lady Bulldogs built a 4-point lead when Hayes scored off another offensive rebound and Begaii assisted freshman Shandiin Armao on a high-low isolation play for a 13-9 lead.

Both teams traded baskets for the rest of the period until Williams drove the baseline to put her team within striking distance at 15-13.

After her drive to the basket, Williams stole the ball with 6 seconds left and scored at the buzzer.

The basket was initially counted but was soon overruled when Winslow's head coach Jerron Jordan contested the shot, saying time expired before Williams let go of the ball.

At the break, Winslow held a 15-13 lead.

Going into the third, Smith said, he told his team to raise their defensive pressure and continue shooting after only shooting 29 percent from the field and 16.7 percent from the 3-point line in the first half.

"We have five girls on this team that hit 20 or more three's this year," he said. "All of them can shoot."

Taking their coach's advice, the Lady Sand Devils improved their field goal percentage and shot 54.5 percent on 6 of 11 3-pointers.

All six of Page's 3-pointers were crucial, as they broke open a close game.

On the first Page possession in the third, Williams penetrated the lane and dished out to Claw, who drilled a trey, for a 16-15 lead.

Midway through the third period, Page had built a 22-18 lead on a 9-to-3 run but Winslow, who went on 6-0 run, momentarily answered back.

In this sequence of plays, Winslow's Nez connected on free throws, Kirsten Nezzie hit a 3-pointer and Marcella Joe went 1-for-2 at the stripe for a 24-22 lead.

Williams, who led all scorers with 16 points, tied the game at 24-all at the end of the third, when she shook her defender and drove the lane for a layup.

A 3-pointer by Claw in the early seconds of the fourth period gave Page a 27-24 lead.

Over the next several possessions, the teams traded baskets until two consecutive 3-pointers by West and Tso, who banked her shot off the glass, put their team ahead at 35-30.

Tso, who finished with 6 points, said hitting that crucial 3-pointer at that moment in the game was all about confidence.

"That's always been my motivation - to be confident with every shot I take," she later said.

Winslow, however, did fight back as Begaii drove end-to-end and Joe scored on a floater but failed to convert on the old-fashion 3-point play for a 35-34 Page lead.

With about 4:02 left in the fourth, Winslow's best defender, Hayes, who had contained Claw and applied pressure on Williams, fouled out.

The turning point in the game came when Claw drove the baseline and assisted Williams on a 3-pointer, for a 38-34 lead.

Williams' 3-pointer later frustrated Winslow's Begaii, who was called for a foul on Claw, and then seconds later was called for a technical foul after slamming the ball to the court.

Begaii's technical foul sent Claw to line, where she went 1-for-2, and gave Page another possession.

Claw took advantage of Winslow's obvious frustration and assisted Tso for a 41-34 Lady Sand Devil lead with 1:11 remaining.

Page's Claw, Tso, and Williams went 5-for-6 at the free-throw line to secure the 46-38 win over the Lady Bulldogs.

Despite losing, Winslow coach Jordan, who coached in his first state championship game, said he was pleased with his team's overall effort.

"We had our chances," he said. "I thought they hit the 3-ball really well in the second half. It was a real turning point and I lost my best defender, Halle Hayes. She got into foul trouble.

"If you look back at how we got here, and you go back to the Many Farms game, we had times where we were down by five with a minute and half, and we battled back there. You know these kids. They fight. The margin just got a little too wide there."

To win the state title, Page's Smith said, it required goal setting by his team.

"They made the goals themselves and the goal said at the very bottom - a state championship," Smith said. "I said, 'All right. We got to work for it then.' And they did.

"It's easy when a team comes in saying their goal is to win a state championship," Smith added. "And you know you can work them because they know why you're working them. It made it a lot easier and these girls made it easier on me."

In a post-game interview with the Navajo Times, Claw and Williams shared what they accomplished with their teammates James, Rocke, Tso and West.

"I'm filled with tears of joy right now because it's been six, seven years we've been thinking about this when we were young growing up," said a teary-eyed Claw. "Now, we finally succeeded. It's just unbelievable!"

Part of the reason why Claw was so emotional was because she and her teammates trained hard during the off-season.

"When we failed and failed twice in two years, it was more of a motivation for us to keep getting better," Claw said. "So we had a two-day break from that (Chandler Seton Catholic loss) and just went to the gym - me, Mal, Amber, Chesley, and Erin.

"We are all into basketball and play it year round," Claw added. "We wanted to get better and it showed tonight what an off-season can do for you."

For Williams, she remembers when the Navajo Times last caught up with her for a post-game interview at the state tournament two years ago, when her team lost to Chandler-Seton Catholic.

Williams said, "I had a reporter talk to me my sophomore year when we lost against Chandler Seton Catholic, and I told him that I made a promise at the end of my senior year, 'We are going to be champions!' And I kept my promise."

Immediately following their victory, the Lady Sand Devils were swarmed by hundreds of loyal fans outside Arena.

James, who recorded 3 points and 5 rebounds against the Lady Bulldogs, described the moment to a popularity contest.

"It feels like a big popularity contest almost because everyone knows your name even though you don't know them," said an elated James. "Hugs everywhere and kisses. It's pretty great!"

Also experiencing the tears of joy were Rocke and West.

"This is the best feeling ever," Rocke said, while wiping away tears. "We waited for this so long and we finally got it. We are state champions!"

"Every since we started playing, we've been talking about this day forever," added West. "It means the world to us. These are my best friends. I grew up with them and played basketball with them. It's awesome!"

Since their victory on Saturday, the seniors' popularity has risen particularly on popular social networks like Facebook.

As of Wednesday, Claw had 2,011 fans listed on her Facebook friends list, with some leaving messages like, "I traveled from Gallup and got fired from my job just to see you win state champ..."

Asked how she felt about Navajo Times cartoonist Jack Ahasteen drawing her into a cartoon in last week's paper titled, "Boka Mania," Claw replied with a chuckle, saying, "I'd rather change my name legally to Boka than to Celeste. It's just such a great feeling."

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