The preseason favorite to win the 5A Conference girls hoops championship was Mesquite. Nearly three months later the favorite to win 5A -- Mesquite. A prohibitive favorite at that.
The battle to see who gets the chance to play Mesquite in the final is more open to discussion. These are blunt words, but two weeks away from becoming fact.
First-round games are Tuesday Feb. 15 at 6:30 p.m. They are: #16 Marana Mountain View at #1 Mesquite;#9 Ironwood Ridge at #8 Maricopa; #12 Betty Fairfax at #5 Marana; #13 Campo Verde at #4 Chaparral; #14 Liberty at #3 Sierra Linda; #11 Sahuaro at #6 Desert Edge; #10 Ironwood at #7 Cienega and #15 Centennial at #2 Arcadia.
Here's a look at the powerhouse Mesquite and a few teams vying to play the Wildcats come the Feb. 27 final at Grand Canyon University:
Mesquite (27-1): The Wildcats are the top seed. They've won 22 games in a row and no 5A opponent has come no closer than 24 points of beating them. Two of the other three top seeds in this year's ttourney field -- Chaparral and Sierra Linda -- were conquests by 29 points or more. Mesquite also won the second-toughest bracket of the NIke TOC in mid-December. Its only loss is to Seton Catholic on Thanksgiving weekend. Three-year junior starters Shaylee Gonzales ((19 ppg) and Lindsay Vanallen (16 ppg) are on their way to scoring 2,000 points each in their career. The addition of Utah transfer post Lauren Gustin (16.5 ppg and 13.5 rpg) last summer was the missing link in adding a post game to the team's repertoire. Plus they have several other players with meaningful experience from 2016's runner-up finish in D-I to Hamilton.
No. 2 Arcadia: The Titans (25-2) are led by junior guard Bryce Nixon and fellow juniors Cassidy Campbell and Dylan Watkiss, who average about 10 points a game. The've played two teams in the top-5 ranked team of the conference (Chaparral twice and Marana). They split with Chaparral and defeated Marana. The last win over Chaparral to end the regular season was impressive and nice springboard to the playoffs for coach Ives Machiz. Their lineup consists almost exclusively junior and sophomores.
No. 3 Sierra Linda: The Bulldogs (24-2) showed they can handle most anyone in 5A. Their two losses, however, were to Mesquite in early January and Chaparral the final week of the regular season. They led Chaparral heading to the final quarter only to be overtaken big in the fourth quarter. They were never competitive with Mesquite. Junior guard Janae Gonzales averages 17 points a game. Senior forward Cheyenne Lee and senior guard Jenay Bojorquez chip in with 9-plus points per contest.
No. 4 Chaparral: The Firebirds (24-4) were excited to close the regular season with two of the best teams in the conference in Sierra Linda and Arcadia. Their fourth-quarter surge knocked off Sierra Linda, bu the next night they were dominated by Arcadia and had to settle for a tie for the Northeast Valley Region title with the Titans. That loss pushed them into the Mesquite half of the bracket. Coach Brian Porth has a solid team, led by juniors Maddie Vick (21 ppg), Summer Menke (9 ppg) and Brenna Doyle (6 ppg and 9 rpg). One of Chaparral's best wins of the season was over 4A top seed Cactus Shadows. The Firebirds losses are to Mesquite, Arcadia and 6A Highland twice.
Southern Arizona qualified five teams for the tournament led by No. 5 seed Marana. Also qualifying are No. 7 Cienega, No. 9 Ironwood Ridge, No. 11 Sahuaro and No. 16 Marana Mountain View. Best of the bunch appears to be Marana, led by guard Alyssa Perez (15 ppg). Marana has beaten three of the other four Tucson schools in the tournament and did not play Sahuaro. Marana's only game against a top-4 seed was Arcadia, an 11-point loss to the Titans in mid-December.