Aztecs take their ‘best shot’ with spectacular three-peat win of Arizona basketball title

Photo courtesy Kelly Zimmer, Corona Sunrise online photo editor
Story by Alex Zener

wn0308149It took the 15 players on Corona’s boys basketball
team 96 days in this 2013-14 season, playing 35
games with targets on their backs, to 3-peat as
Arizona’s Division I state basketball champions by
defeating Pinnacle 71-70 in overtime at
“Our guys, from day one, had to take everyone’s
best shot,” said coach Sam Duane Jr. “We had
to play with the pressure of being No. 1 and the
expectation of winning another championship.”
“If you are not a coach or a player who has been
in this type of situation, you have no idea how diffi cult
it really is to get to your third fi nal game, let alone
playing the actual game and winning it all can be.”
Corona’s game in the fi nals, a repeat of last
season’s fi nals against Pinnacle, certainly lived up to
the hype.
It was an epic battle between two outstanding
teams where the score was tied 14 times with 16 lead
changes over 36 minutes—four eight-minute quarters
and a four-minute overtime period.
Corona had the largest lead at nine points with a
little over four minutes to play in the second quarter
at 26-17, but the Pioneers would battle back to tie the
game at 31 on their fi rst two plays in the second half.
The basketball gods must have been
shining down on the Aztecs after Corona’s 1989
championship basketball team was honored at
halftime for its state championship title won 25 years
ago. This fi nal game had a few added twists at the end
of regulation to add to the suspense.
As the seconds ticked off to end the fourth
quarter, both teams thought they had won during
regulation when Pinnacle’s Ben Wahlberg grabbed
an off ensive rebound and put it in the basket as time
expired with the Aztecs leading 62-61.
The Aztec players ran off cheering because
Wahlberg’s shot went in after the buzzer. At the same
time, Pinnacle’s bench was calling a foul on the putback
basket. While everyone in the arena and those
watching at home held their breath, the offi cials
stopped everything to watch the recorded playback.
“I knew before the refs went to the monitor that
a foul had been called,” said coach Duane. “I was
praying the foul was called after the horn and that
the basket would not count, because if it did we were
done. At least with free throws, we had a chance that
the Pinnacle player would miss one. I knew if they
counted the basket we had lost.”
A foul was called on an Aztec player, but before
the Pinnacle player shot the basket. He was given
two free-throw attempts. He made the fi rst one, tying
the game for the 12th time at 62-62, but missed the
second. The buzzer sounded, sending the game into
The Aztecs scored fi rst on a put-back basket by
freshman Alex Barcella to lead 64-62. Pinnacle tied
the game at 64 before Corona was able to take a fi vepoint
lead at 69-64 on a three-point basket by Casey
Benson and two free throws by Dane Kuiper with
less than two minutes remaining.
Of course, Dorian Pickens, Pinnacle’s star guard,
was instrumental in not only tying the game at 69
each but giving the Pioneers a one-point lead at 70-69
with an old-fashioned “and one” basket with less than
a minute remaining.
Benson was fouled as he drove to the basket
resulting in two made free throws to put the Aztecs on
top 71-70 down the stretch.
Pinnacle had chances in the last minute to tie the
score or even take the lead but ultimately failed on a
last ditch three-point attempt by Pickens as the fi nal
second counted off and the Aztecs celebrated their
win for sure this time.
Every championship team has its star players,
but as coach Duane preaches all year, players have to
buy into their role on a championship team and play
like a team. All of Corona’s 15 basketball players did
just that, and whether they made it on the court or
not during this state playoff run, they all contributed
to Corona’s third championship win in one way or
To the seven main players whose role it was to
contribute on the court, they all had their moments
during this championship tournament.
“That’s the great thing about this team, we had
depth and a lot of guys capable of making plays when
we needed them” said Duane.
For instance, when Corona seems to be
struggling to score points in the third quarter,
Cassius Peat came in and played aggressively
driving into the lane to put in seven points, fi ve of
them free throws, to help put the Aztecs up 46-42 late
in the quarter.
“My mindset was to get our team back in the
game when I came in during the third quarter,” said
Peat. “I wanted to focus on doing my absolute best job
to accomplish that goal.”
“Cassius played with great energy in the third
quarter and gave us a huge lift,” said Duane. “He
is a winner; he is a big game player and has been
since his freshman year. He has been part of three
championship teamsnow. I can’t say enough about
how he accepted his role this year coming off the
bench to help us win our third one.”
Two return players from last season’s team had
bigger roles this season.
“I can’t say enough about Russ Davies and
Jarrett Givens. They really stepped up the whole
tournament and made big plays—winning plays. They
really should be credited for how they helped us win.”
“Russ was big for us all year, making some big
shots, like he did against Perry, when we needed
them,” said Duane.
“Jarrett is our X-Factor,” said Duane. “He can
defend, rebound and score. For instance, it was a big
play when he grabbed that loose ball and passed it up
the court to Casey for a layup, cutting Pinnacle’s lead
to one late in the game. His trey against Perry sealed
the win.”
Adding three new players to the team could
have been a challenge on most teams, but the Aztecs
accepted Connor MacDougall, Dane Kuiper
and freshman point guard Alex Barcello, who
were crucial to the team’s success this season and
especially in the state playoff s, without a hitch.
“Connor was outstanding all year long,” said
Duane. “I have so much respect for how he handled
this season and how he battled through injuries. He is
such a team player. To be honest, we would not have
been in that fi nal game against Pinnacle without his
game against Mountain View.
“Dane has really turned into an outstanding
defender. He often draws the assignment on our
opponent’s best player,” said Duane. “He is such a
great player and so unselfi sh. He contributed in every
facet of the game to help us win.”
Alex Barcella accepted his role and
contributed greatly to the Aztec success during this,
his freshman season. Winning state championships
turned out to be a double whammy for the Barcello
family since his sister Julia also won a state
championship with Seton Catholic the same day.
“Alex was a huge part in our success all year
long, “said Duane. “He probably would have started
on any other team in the state but accepted with great
pride his role off the bench. He always gave us a shot
of energy.”
What Barcello did was help free up Corona’s
never-say-die leader Casey Benson to shoot the ball
more by taking over some of Benson’s point guard
It is probably safe to say to anyone that the
Aztecs would not have won three consecutive state
championships without Benson.
“There are not enough pages in your paper to
tell you what Casey Benson has meant to Corona
basketball,” said Duane. “I would sum it up as
saying he is a high-character person, who has an
unbelievable drive to be successful.”
“Casey is not only a role model to our players
but to the students at Corona. I have never coached
a player that will not let anything get in his way of
accomplishing his goals.”
The last three seasons his goal has been to win a
state championship title for his team and his school.
“It was awesome to be able to win my fi nal
high school game,” said Casey. “I never thought as
a freshman about winning three state titles. I’m just
glad I could help my team win.”
Corona is only the second Arizona big school to
win three back-to-back state championships. Mesa
Mountain View is the other.
The Aztecs also had a come-from-behind victory
against Pinnacle in the fi nals last season with similar
“It was like here we go again,” said Duane.
“When you win a championship, you are always going
to have that one game where your players are pushed
to the brink and you have to fi nd a way to win. Little
did we know it would be so heart stopping like our
game this year against Pinnacle.”
“It is a true testament to our players and their
belief in each other and their ability to win,” said
Duane. “It has really been an honor to coach this
group through this run. The unselfi shness of this
team and their belief they had in each other and their
coaches was truly a pleasure to be part of.”
Corona’s 2013-14 boys basketball team has
certainly earned its place in Arizona basketball


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