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San Tan Charter wins first basketball title behind dominant second half

Feb. 24—San Tan Charter was searching for answers when it found itself down by 15 points in the 2A boys' state title game Saturday afternoon.

Rancho Solano Prep, the 3-seed in the tournament, was matching the intensity the top-ranked Roadrunners brought to the floor every game. That, coupled with a strong first half of shooting, had the Mustangs in command of the game.

At least, so it seemed.

A quick timeout and regrouping from San Tan Charter completely changed the narrative of the game, as the Roadrunners went on a 22-0 run to end the third quarter and never looked back, beating Rancho Solano 69-54 to win the program's first basketball state championship.

"A lot of people have seen us put up big numbers offensively," San Tan Charter Head Coach Kyli Crooms said. "But they don't expect us to defend at a really high level. I knew it was just a matter of them settling in and once they did, it happened."

Rancho Solano came out firing on all cylinders Saturday afternoon.

Senior guard Jake Miller quickly caught fire from beyond the arc, knocking down multiple 3s to help the Mustangs gain an early lead in a tight back-and-forth contest. Fellow senior guard Sagith Vargas contributed as well on the offensive end, while Jayden Johnson and Aidan Mushahwar crashed the boards for second-chance buckets.

The gritty play from Rancho Solano left San Tan Charter a bit shellshocked to start. The Roadrunners ran through the 2A Conference, dominating opponents by 20-plus points every game. Their only losses of the season came to defending Open Division champion Perry in an early season tournament and two out-of-state opponents.

But they found themselves in a somewhat troubling spot midway through the third quarter. But just as the pre-made championship shirts said, "Defense wins championships."

"We just had to lock in defensively. I told them it was now or never," Crooms said. "I wanted to cut the game to 5 points with 4 minutes to go. By that timeout [in the third], 5 points with 4 minutes to go. At that point I knew we had them."

San Tan Charter went on a 44-14 run from the 5:36 mark of the third quarter to the end of the game. In the second half as a whole, the Roadrunners outscored the Mustangs 46-21.

They quickly erased the 15-point deficit and took complete control of the game thanks in large part to its suffocating full-court press. When Rancho Solano did make it down the court, the Roadrunners defended the rim.

The lockdown defense led to multiple baskets in transition. By the time San Tan Charter cut Rancho's lead to just one point thanks to a 3-pointer from freshman guard Peyton Lubash, the momentum had fully shifted to the top seed.

Lubash, the team's leading scorer, continued to facilitate and hit shots down the stretch. He finished with 16 points while Zaire Richardson, a talented junior guard for the Roadrunners, led the team with 17. The two attacked the rim and opened up opportunities for others, including freshman Jase Benjamin, who finished with 11.

"I'm just proud of all of my teammates and what they've done," Lubash said. "We didn't give up when we were down 10 at half. We fought and fought. We just had to give it our all because we needed a ring."

Despite the deficit and struggles, San Tan Charter players never doubted their ability to climb back into the game. They quickly went back to their fundamentals: Tough defense and drives to the rim.

They drew multiple fouls inside the paint that helped build their lead. Richardson was one who found himself at the line the most, connecting on 6-of-8 attempts — most of which down the stretch. Lubash was right behind him connecting on all five of his attempts from the charity stripe.

In many ways, those shots calmed the team down.

"I just think we were nervous," Lubash said of the first-half struggles. "This was the state championship, for some of us our first one. It just feels good.

Crooms knew in the summer the type of team he had this season. They're young, with Beau Burns being the only senior that sees considerable playing time for the Roadrunners. The rest of the players are either juniors or younger. Several are sophomores.

But despite their youth, they have talent. They seized the moment at Section 7 in the summer, shocking teams in their bracket. At the time, Crooms said he just wanted to prove his team belonged in a setting of that magnitude.

It carried over to the season where they were the best team all year long.

"We knew we were returning the entire group, and we knew we had some amazing freshmen coming in," Crooms said. "We knew we would be here, and we knew we had to take care of business. The entire year we knew we could do this."

Have an interesting story? Contact Zach Alvira at (480)898-5630 or zalvira@timespublications.com. Follow him on Twitter @ZachAlvira.