FLORENCE — The Gophers didn’t quite look like themselves in the first half of the 3A Central girls basketball region championship. But they battled back and won their second straight region title with a 53-47 triumph over American Leadership Academy-Queen Creek on Thursday night.
A sluggish start offensively had Florence down 25-20 at the half. But the Gophers have battled back before, and they came out firing on all cylinders in the third quarter.
“These seniors, we played a real tough schedule during the summertime, we’d get down in the first half, but they know how to grind back,” Florence coach Bob Bellemare said. “They know that defense wins it, and (made) foul shots.”
The defense was there in the first half, but the No. 3 Gophers (25-5) couldn’t get anything going offensively. The No. 14 Patriots (20-8) double-teamed Florence’s leading scorer Bryn O’Rourke (16.3 points) every time she touched the ball, effectively taking her out of the game in the first half.
That meant O’Rourke’s teammates had to step up and score. In the first two quarters, no one could. The shots were not falling, whether they were layups or shots from the perimeter.
In the third quarter, that all changed. The Gophers, who were down 27-20, suddenly got hot from behind the arc.
Sielle Neal, Alex Brown and Aliya Brown all hit 3-pointers in the quarter, and Florence finally seized the lead at 32-31 after two free throws from Alex Brown. Neal drained a deep 3 from just left of the top of the key with two seconds left in the quarter, sending the crowd into a frenzy.
That shot gave Florence a 37-33 lead heading into the fourth quarter. The Gophers continued to pour it on in the fourth, with their defense forcing turnovers from the Patriots.
Alex Brown went 4 for 4 from the foul line in the fourth quarter, Aliya Brown had five points, and O’Rourke added five points in the final frame to clinch the region title.
Florence did not panic while down at the half but came out with more urgency after the break.
“When we came out of the locker room, we were just saying we need to make every single shot that we take,” said Aliya Brown, who had a team-high 16 points. “Sometimes I say, I gotta carry the team on my back. I don’t mean literally carry them on my back because we play as a team ... so I think the second half I just focused more and just locked in.”
While O’Rourke normally carries the scoring load, Aliya Brown said she knows sometimes she has to provide Florence with a second scoring threat. She is gaining the confidence to do just that.
“Bryn, she (does) a lot of hustle plays, and sometimes I put all the weight on her,” Aliya Brown said. “But it’s like, I can do it too, so that’s what I told myself.”
O’Rourke finished with nine points, Alex Brown had 12, Michelle Giddens-Acuna added eight, and Neal had five. Jessica Winquist used her size and strength to score 16 for the Patriots, while Kaycee Kimball added 12 and Tatum Matheny had 10.
The collective defensive effort from Florence held ALA-Queen Creek to just eight points in the third quarter and continued to force them into critical turnovers in the fourth.
The Gophers finished their second straight undefeated season in region play, a remarkable 24 straight wins in the 3A Central.
“It’s very important,” Bellemare said of winning the region title, which was one of the team’s goals for the 2019-20 season. “It’s been a great season, but it’s not over.”
The team has been led by its starting five, a group of five seniors who have seen it all and complement each other extremely well. Aliya Brown said the chemistry of the five girls is special. Those seniors are the Brown sisters, O’Rourke, Neal and Giddens-Acuna.
“On and off the court, whether we bicker and argue, we just push through it ... we just throw all that negativity away once we’re playing together,” Aliya Brown said.
Florence will likely be a top-four seed in the 3A state playoffs, which begin Tuesday. The Gophers will have a first-round bye and host a second-round game Friday.