DON KETCHUM is a native of Phoenix. He was a sportswriter for The Arizona Republic/The Phoenix Gazette for nearly four decades. He covered high school sports on several occasions as well as the Arizona Diamondbacks, Arizona Cardinals and Arizona State sports. From 2008-14, he was a staff writer for, the web site of the Arizona Interscholastic Association.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Gators on the verge of first basketball title

The security guard who was monitoring the hallway outside the girls’ basketball locker room at Arizona State’s Wells Fargo Arena watched a group of players jumping up and down and screaming at the top of their lungs as they sprinted past him.

“I’ve seen so many teams go through here with tears. It’s nice to see one with smiles once in awhile,’’ he said.

Xavier’s Gators say amen to that, because they are the team wearing the smiles.

The way they began Wednesday night’s (Feb. 21) 6A Conference semifinal, one would not have believed that the 5th-seeded Gators would have much of a chance against top-seeded Goodyear Millennium.

Every Xavier shot seemed to hit the rim and bounce away. Could the Gators withstand the cold spell?

The team made its jitters disappear late in the first half, when it battled back to trail by just four at halftime after facing a double-digit deficit.

The second half was a fight to the finish. When Xavier senior forward Katie Hassett corralled a Millennium miss as the final seconds ticked away, reality set in and the Gators had held on for a 50-48 victory to earn a shot at the school’s first-ever hoops title.

Xavier will face second-seeded defending state champion Surprise Valley Vista for the state championship next Wednesday (Feb. 28) at Wells Fargo. Tipoff is 5 p.m. Valley Vista defeated third-seeded Gilbert 59-44 earlier on Wednesday.

How great was this?

Gators coach Jennifer Gillom was happy to place a phone call to a special person – her mother, Ella, who was back home out of state.

“I said, “Mom, we did it!’ ’’ Gillom said. “She usually goes to bed early, but she wanted to stay up for this one.’’

Only four Xavier players put points on the board, but they got the job done.

Senior forward Montana Oltrogge led the way with 22 points, and junior point guard Leilani McIntosh had a huge second half. She scored 14 of her 16 points after intermission, including a pair of 3-pointers.

And even though Hassett did not score, she came up with some key rebounds and played solid defense against Millennium’s sizable front line. The Tigers were looking for their second straight appearance in the title game.

Hassett was out briefly after tweaking a knee in the fourth quarter, but had the biggest rebound of the game came when her grab of an offensive miss allowed Xavier to maintain possession with a little less than a minute to play.

Oltrogge was the recipient of Hassett’s board work, completing the sequence by getting a pass and scoring on a reverse layup to make it 50-48 with 36 seconds left.

Hassett walked out of the locker room afterward with an ice bag taped to her knee.

Asked how she was doing, she responded with a thumbs-up signal and said, “We’re good.’’

Oltrogge, too, had ice on her legs to help calm down a case of the shin splints that had been bothering her during the second half of the season and forced her to miss about two weeks.

“It’s not nearly as bad as it had been,’’ she said, agreeing that the extra rest had helped.

And her reaction to the win?

“I’m still kind of speechless,’’ she said. “My first three years, we went out in the first round. Now to be here and actually have this happen, it’s amazing.’’

Oltrogge and Gillom agreed that the Gators were a bundle of nerves when the game began.

“Our nerves were all over the place,’’ Gillom said. “When we were down by only four (at halftime) against a good team like Millennium, we knew we had a chance. It says a lot about the heart this team has. It was a matter of keeping the faith.’’

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