Mikala Benally guaranteed there would not be another late championship-game breakdown Monday for Page, 41-34 winners over Monument Valley (Kayenta) in 3A Conference girls basketball in Glendale.
Benally kept the third-seeded Sand Devils afloat in a turnover-filled first half with three 3-pointers, then hit the critical free throws that her club missed in the waning seconds of a heartbreaking 41-40 loss in the 2017 final. Page (22-9) claimed its fifth state title, the first for second-year head coach Ryan Whitehorse.
Benally finished with 17 points.
Monument Valley was bidding to become the first girls basketball team in any division to win a title with a sub-.500 record since Page did it in Class 4A in 1991. The Mustangs (14-17) had recovered from a seven-game losing streak through January to catch fire in the state tournament from the 12-seed. In the final at Gila River Arena, they showed they had learned from losing two of three earlier games to Page.
The Mustangs neutralized senior Page post Jacey Salabiye, who came in averaging 13 points a game. They clogged the lane and forced 12 first-half turnovers, including eight steals, and went into halftime in an 18-18 tie. Guard Tayla Nez, an 11.5 points-per-game scorer, had nine in the half.
Page led 31-30 after three quarters despite the absence of its other senior leader, Lelisa Watson, who was saddled with foul trouble. The Sand Devils began pulling away from their 3A North rivals as the fourth quarter opened. Salabiye and junior guard Myka Taliman each scored for a 35-30 lead, and the Mustangs went cold in a 0-for-9 shooting funk.
In last year's loss to Valley Christian (Chandler), Page was unable to capitalize on its chances from the foul line when it really counted. Even in the double bonus, Page missed three of its last four free throws, while the winners converted both ends of a one-and-one with eight seconds left to decide it.
Benally, who did not appear in that game, was fouled this year with two-plus minutes to play. She hit both free throws in the one-and-one, then hit a layup on a feed from Taliman for a 39-32 lead. The Mustangs drew to within five points with a minute left, before Watson made a big defensive play that helped get Benally back on the line. She hit both free throws again to hand Whitehorse his first title.
Whitehorse, who played high school basketball at Page, graduated only seven years ago. He became the second Page High head coach to win a state title in his second season, after Mike Beall's 1999 team won in 4A. Justin Smith coached Page to its last two championships, in 2012 and 2015.
Whitehorse told the Navajo Times before this season began, "Losing to Valley Christian by one point gave me a chance as a coach to reflect back on what I could have done differently, but it also gave the girls who played a chance to reflect on their game. Every practice they are working hard and pushing each other as if they are back in that championship game."
Page was 14 of 16 from the foul line, with Benally 6 of 6.