With 3-pointers by Brandon Tiffany and Kaleb Sandoval to open the game, the Flagstaff Eagles left little doubt of their return to the Division II state quarterfinals.
Building a double-digit lead in the first quarter, the Eagles led from start to finish in Saturday’s 78-68 home win over the Saguaro Sabercats. Flagstaff will now face No. 4 Gilbert Christian at the Gila River Arena in Glendale on Wednesday.
After Tiffany hit a 3 on Flagstaff’s first possession of the game, Saguaro matched it with one of their own. That would be the final tie of the game, as Sandoval hit his own 3 and two free throws to put Flagstaff ahead.
Another 3 from Saguaro was matched shortly after by Sandoval’s second of the game and Flagstaff forced a timeout from the visitors when Bridger Hershey’s layup put the Eagles ahead 19-8.
“With this team, they score points in bunches,” said Eagles head coach James Kirk of Saguaro. “I told these guys, 'Saguaro will execute. They will run their stuff if we don’t come out fast, and if we get behind, it is a struggle against these guys.'”
From there, Flagstaff led by double-digits until Saguaro chipped away in the middle of the fourth quarter. Runs of seven and six unanswered points had the Sabercats trailing by just five with two minutes left in the game.
Leading 69-64, Brett Morrow missed the first half of a 1-and-1 but Tiffany grabbed the rebound and put in a layup to keep the Eagles in control. The schools traded free throws before Morrow put the game away with a put-back dunk that brought the crowd to its feet.
Taking a 76-66 lead with just 36 seconds left, Flagstaff closed the game on a 7-0 run over the final minutes before Saguaro hit a pair of free throws to end the game.
“We let it get away when we shouldn’t have,” Morrow said of the team’s lead. “It was one of those momentum changes. They kept going and going, and we didn’t realize they were chipping away so quickly.”
Morrow finished the game with 16 points, as did Austin Brain. Sandoval led the Eagles with 24 points, hitting 13 of 14 from the free-throw line. Flagstaff came away with a big free-throw advantage, hitting 22 of 25 as a team while Saguaro finished 15 of 20.
Flagstaff had built its lead to as many as 21 after Morrow put back a basket midway through the second half to cap a 6-0 run. However, after scoring 21 in each of the first two quarters, the Eagles had droughts when the offense seemed unable to get much going during the third and fourth quarters.
“We have got to be able to run them, make them work a little bit when they are tired,” Kirk said. “They were getting tired and we needed to make them work. We did that when we went to the spread because they had to work and then we got to the free-throw line.”
After getting to the line 16 times in the first half, Flagstaff did not shoot a second-half free throw until the final two minutes of the fourth quarter.