Seton Cathloic celebrates its third girls basketball title in four years after defeating Cactus Shadows in the 4A championship game at Gila River Arena. (Photo courtesy of Rory Self).
Who had the bigger chip on their shoulder as Seton Catholic and Cactus Shadows tipped off Saturday afternoon for the 4A girls basketball title?
Cactus Shadows, which lost to Seton in last year's final? Or Seton, which fell to Cactus Shadows a month ago in a regular-season tilt?
The outcome Saturday said Seton. So did Seton coach Karen Self.
Playing well out of the gate, Seton jumped on Cactus Shadows and never let the Falcons get in the flow in a 61-27 romp in the 4A girls championship game at Gila River Arena.
The championship was the ninth for Seton -- all with Karen Self at the helm. It's also the third title in four years and sixth for the program this decade. The nine titles are a girls state record for most titles by one coach. Miner Webster (Gilbert and Highland) and Don Petronovich (Winslow) have coached teams to eight girls titles.
'"This game was been in the front of our minds since Jan. 20," Self said, the date Seton bowed to Cactus Shadows 54-41. "We watched film off an on on them since. We took that loss to heart.... It was 100 percent vindication."
Seton broke out to a 19-10 lead after the first quarter, pounding the ball inside to tall, twin sisters Jenn and LeeAnne Wirth. Jenn Wirth scored 10 of her 19 points in the first period and LeeAnne Wirth four of her six. Jenn Wirth added 10 rebounds and LeeAnne Wirth six rebounds, four blocks and three steals.
Bothered offensively in the loss to Cactus Shadows by Falcons junior standout Kaitlin Bickle (30 points in that game), Seton decided to open the game with a trapping defense up top that served to pressure guards and surround Bickle who plays up high often.
The tactic worked to a great extent, but Seton benefitted from deja vu concerning Bickle. Bickle picked up two fouls in the first quarter and a third with a little more than five minutes left in the second quarer. Bickle had two points and two rebounds with two shot attempts before sitting most of the second quarter. In last year's title game, Bickle also suffered from foul trouble, eventually fouled out and finished with eight points.
Seton improved its lead to 31-12 at halftime with an exclamation point added in the final seconds on two three-point field goals by junior Sarah Barcello. The second was at the buzzer and from well behind the arc. Barcello, who missed the loss to Cactus Shadows with a concussion, scored a game-high 20 points in the title game.
Cactus Shadows was not able to make any kind of run at Seton in the second half. Bickle finished with four points and five rebounds and played just 17 minutes -- the same minutes as last year's title game. She 's averaged 16 points a game this season. Chloe Warrington led Cactus Shadows with nine points and Tierney DeDonatis had six before she fouled out in the final minutes.
"We knew coming in what it was going to beat them," Self said. "They're a great team. We put together a game plan and the girls followed it to perfection."
Four seniors, three who have started throughout their careers, had the chance to play in four title games and won three (2014-2017). That quartet is the Wirths and guards Liz Holter and Courtney Knecht. Holter added six points and three assists in her finale and junior guard Kendall Krick also scored six points.
Perhaps feeling most fortunate in playing in her final final was LeeAnne Wirth. She was been bothered by a stress reaction in her spine the last two months and missed large clumps of games because of it.
"No player wants to contend with an injury and I've been fortunate to beg able to work through it with a lot of help," LeeAnne Wirth said. "I was focused more on getting back for the team and the coaches because of the support they've given me."
Wirth last played before the state tournament in the Jan. 20 loss to Cactus Shadows. She sat out three weeks rehabbing and getting physical therapy. She played a little in the quarterfinals and most of the semis before getting in 26 of 32 minutes in the title game.
"I felt good out there today," LeeAnne Wirth said. "It acts up from time to time, but I felt good for this game.