Editor’s note: Former Dispatch sports editor Ed Petruska (1979-2016) will revisit on a periodic basis some of the most memorable events he covered. Today’s installment: Casa Grande Union defeats Flagstaff Coconino 71-63 on March 4, 1989, at the Arizona State University Activity Center to win the Class AAA-2 boys basketball state championship.
Playing their fourth game in five days, the Cougars went ahead to stay at 10-9 with 2:06 remaining in the first quarter. The lead grew to 57-43 early in the fourth, sending hundreds of golden pompom-waving CG Union rooters into a giddy frenzy.
Coconino, which entered the final with a 31-0 record, clawed back. The Panthers reduced the margin to 59-56 with 3:36 left and trailed 66-63 with under a minute to play before CG Union iced the win by making 5 of 6 free throws in the final 39 seconds.
The title was ever-so-sweet for coach Bruce Kieser and the Cougars, who had lost 34-31 in the semifinals to eventual state champ Phoenix North the previous season and were eliminated in the quarterfinals the year before that.
The championship game capped Kieser’s eighth season with the Cougars. He coached them for 14 overall, compiling a 192-143 record. Before coming to CG Union, Kieser went 251-69 in 15 seasons as a coach in Wisconsin and 15-9 in 1980-81 at Tucson Flowing Wells. His overall record in 30 seasons was 458-221.
“You always want to get one (a state title); all coaches do,” Kieser said after the game. “But you realize that only a small percentage get them. I’ve come close before, and I thought one of these times it’s got to happen.”
The starters on that 1988-89 team that went 24-5 were seniors Billy Hatton, Demetreus Robbins, Gabe Beechum and Tim Barnett and junior Terry Robbins. The top reserves were senior Rick Veon and junior Carlo Hernandez. Rounding out the roster were James Faucette, Joe Graack, Steve Tomak, Ray Soto and Lynn Hall.
Hatton went 7 for 12 from the field and finished with 24 points on that grand Saturday afternoon. He also had seven assists, six rebounds and four steals.
Hatton converted a steal into a layup with three seconds left in the second quarter to give the Cougars a 34-29 halftime cushion. He made 4 of 4 free throws in the final minute, hitting both ends of a one-and-one that boosted the lead to 68-63 with 39 seconds to play and two with 11 seconds left to conclude the scoring.
“In practice, coach (Kieser) always said to think the state championship was on the line when I shot my free throws,” Hatton said in a postgame interview. “That’s what I did. I guess [Coconino] thought I couldn’t hit them, but coach did. He said he wanted me with the ball.”
Demetreus Robbins, who died at age 30 in 2001 from complications due to multiple sclerosis, provided 22 points and 14 rebounds before fouling out with 2:56 left.
“I just looked up at the score and hoped we could hang on,” he said after seeing Coconino hit the two resulting free throws to trim the margin to 61-57.
Veon replaced Robbins “and boy was he nervous,” Kieser, age 79, recalled in a recent interview with PinalCentral. “I told him just to concentrate on playing defense, and he came through with a big steal and a couple of rebounds.”
Beechum’s layup off an assist from Hatton with six seconds remaining in the March 2 semifinals at ASU lifted CG Union to a 64-63 win over Glendale Cactus, which owned a 10-point lead in the second quarter. Beechum contributed seven points and four rebounds in the title game, but he said his main focus was on defense.
“That’s what I was thinking about the whole time,” Beechum said. “I just played my role.”
Terry Robbins, who drew the assignment of guarding Coconino star Edison Bahe, more than held his own with 14 points and 11 rebounds. Bahe scored 25 points, but fouled out with 26 seconds to play.
“This is the first time I’ve seen you smile,” this reporter said to Terry Robbins.
He replied: “I was saving it up.”
Terry Robbins went on to say: “I just tried to do my best without fouling. I tried to box [Bahe] out and make him go over my back. That’s how he got in foul trouble.”
Barnett finished with four points.
“We got here and we did it,” he said.
Kieser said he doesn’t remember “all the little details” of those magical 32 minutes. “When you’re coaching in that type of game, everything is big.”
After Hatton made his final two free throws, Kieser knew he could celebrate. He raised his arms, turned to the crowd and began pumping his clenched fists with unbridled joy.
Odds & ends
• Kieser was assessed a technical foul when he jumped off the bench to protest a foul call against Barnett with 4:52 left in the third quarter. CG Union held a 42-32 lead at that point, but Coconino didn’t make up much ground, missing three of the resulting four free throws.
• A horde of CG Union fans — mostly students — stormed the court immediately after the final buzzer. They apparently caused quite a bit of damage in the process. Kieser said CG Union received a bill for $10,000 from ASU to cover the cost of the carnage.
• The Cougars advanced to state tourney play with a 65-62 come-from-behind win over Peoria in the do-or-die third-place game of the Metro Region tournament on Feb. 24 at Glendale Ironwood High School. Down 40-35 to begin the fourth quarter, CG Union went ahead to stay at 57-56 on Hatton’s three-point play with 1:13 left and emerged with a 65-62 victory. Next came wins of 57-40 at Tucson Rincon on Feb. 28 in the first round of state and 99-47 at Phoenix Cortez in the March 1 quarterfinals.