FLORENCE — The Coolidge Bears (22-0) remain undefeated after a fast-paced and highly physical game against the Florence Gophers (17-6), which ended 66-56 Tuesday night.
The scrappy matchup was reminiscent of their last regular season game between the long-time rivals two weeks ago, but this time, Coolidge had one key playmaker back on its side.
Though the Bears were able to hold six points over the Gophers in their last game without star shooting guard Brayden Gant, who was out on suspension, he returned in a big way as the highest scorer of the night on Tuesday with 23 points.
Heading into the game, Gant was just 18 points away from 1,000 career points, which he hit in an explosive play that started with a steal from Belclem Namegabe and pass to Ja’Kwon Jordan, who set Gant up for a slam dunk to end the third quarter 49-41, Coolidge.
Illuminated signs from the sidelines announced the achievement as the Coolidge crowd erupted.
Despite this, Gant said he tried to enter the game with zero expectations of getting to 1,000 points in order to avoid unnecessary nerves and focus on the objective of the team winning.
“Folks told me not to think about it, so I didn’t think about it as much,” Gant said. “I was just playing our game hoping it would come, and it did.”
Coolidge coach Dave Glasgow is no stranger to coaching a player to 1,000 points, especially if their last name is Gant. Terrance Gant, Brayden’s father, was “the 1A to 3A player of the year in the (Arizona) Republic in 1999,” said Glasgow, “we won two state championships.” Terrance ended with 1,257 career points.
Being that this is his senior year, Brayden Gant only has the next seven regular season games and a likely playoff run to have a chance to break his father’s record.
Glasgow said, “If he plays very well and we get three or four games in the playoffs” after the next seven regular season games, “it could be done, yes.”
Following his suspension for celebrating a previous personal victory, Gant said it was difficult watching games from home and returning to his first game but now, things are “back in motion.”
He was proud of his team’s performance on Tuesday but felt they could do more.
Most of the team carries Glasgow’s perfectionist mindset — they’re slow to pat themselves on the back, even as the record continues to pile in their favor.
Even with a 10-point lead to end the game, Glasgow said, “I’ll be straight with you, we are 22-0, we still haven’t played as we can play. Fact. We are not disciplined at either end of the court, not consistent with it. But, I thought Gant played really well.”
Glasgow may be referring to the Bears’ slow start in the first quarter, which saw a series of unsuccessful steals and rebounds on a single possession, which then carried into over a minute without a score on either side. They came back from being down to tie things up when Jordan drew a foul on Florence at the half mark in the first; but they wouldn’t hold a confident lead over the Gophers until it was well into the third quarter.
The Gophers appeared strong going into the first three quarters with the score either weighting in their favor or tied, but by the fourth quarter the Bears kept them consistently within a double-digit deficit.
Gophers’ Darren Swain opened up the game with a shot from way beyond the arc in under a minute from tip off. Moments later he assisted Brandon Farley with another three to momentarily startle the Bears’ defense.
Swain had another key play at the end of the second quarter with a three-point buzzer beater to bring them within two points. While Farley dominated scoring in the third quarter with six overall points, as the Gophers attempted to keep the deficit within three points.
Swain and Farley ended the night with 11 and 13 points, respectively.
“I think Coolidge’s athleticism kind of played a part into it,” Florence coach David Silvas said. “We weren’t hitting any shots, we couldn’t get any shots. Hats off to Coolidge for playing defense to where they made it difficult to get shots.”
Silvas said his players may have felt some pressure going into the night, considering their previous loss against the Bears and the weight of their long standing hometown rivalry.
Having lived in Florence his whole life, both playing and coaching against Coolidge, Silvas said, “the kids, God bless them, they want to win and they want to do a good job for me. So, maybe a I put a little too much pressure on them. But you know, the kids respond. They’re great kids and they know what’s at stake.”