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Winning: It’s a Family Affair for New Nike Champ St. Mary’s of Phoenix

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Photo Caption: The St. Mary’s (Phoenix, Ariz.) girls’ basketball team won the elite Joe Smith Division of the Nike Tournament Championship, widely considered the unofficial national championship of girls’ high school basketball, defeating Riverdale Baptist (Upper Marlboro, Maryland) in the championship game of the four-day tournament in Chandler, Ariz. on Thursday, December 22, 2011. The St. Mary’s team includes three sets of sisters and a father-daughter duo, but the girls, many of whom have played together since they were seven and eight-year-olds, consider themselves all to be sisters.

Photo Credit: Courtesy Kelly Kline Photography for Full Court Press©

By Lee Michaelson

Though it is nearly 7:00 p.m. and just two days before Christmas, the Hamilton High School gym in Chandler, Ariz. is packed to the gills. An enthusiastic crowd spills out of the stands designated for fans and into the area set aside for the college coaches from across the nation who had come to scout the talent. As those bleachers, too, fill up, some are forced to stand in the doorways, hoping to catch a glimpse of the proceedings. They are there to see the best of the best in girls’ high school basketball.

Welcome to the Nike Tournament of Champions!

In this, the title game of the elite Joe Smith Division, where many of the top-ranked girls’ teams in the country had pitted themselves against one another over the past four days, St. Mary’s High School and Riverdale Baptist would lay it all on the line for the unofficial national championship of girls’ high school basketball.

There is little question which team is the crowd favorite: St. Mary’s, located in nearby Phoenix, Arizona, are clearly the local heroes.

Riverdale Baptist, which has journeyed to the tournament all the way from Upper Marlboro, Maryland, has brought along its own contingent of family members and supporters, but understandably has a decidedly smaller cheering section.

Still, in the eyes of most of the journalists who follow the sport, a St. Mary’s win would be a major upset.

Riverdale Baptist entered the competition with a 5-0 record, ranked No. 1 in the country in the “Xcellent 25” girls’ high school basketball rankings promulgated by Full Court’s former publisher and continuing columnist Clay Kallam for MaxPreps.

The Crusaders had finished last season with a 30-5 record and ranked No. 10 nationally. They have a solid core of seniors returning from that campaign, three of them already signed with Division 1 programs in major college conferences—6-0 wings Jennie Simms (West Virginia) and Jonquel Jones (Clemson) and 5-10 guard Kelila Atkinson (Wake Forest). To that nucleus they have added two senior transfers—6-0 center Brittany Jenkins-Murray (LaSalle) and 5-6 point guard Dominique Johnson (Towson). Even some of their younger players are nationally watch-listed.

Across the board, they are bigger, more powerfully built, and more athletic than their opponents from St. Mary’s. Six of their players (as opposed to just three for St. Mary’s) stand six-feet or better. They play a hard-nosed, physical, blacktop style of basketball. And the Crusaders arrived at the Nike hot off an East Coast tournament in which they had totally pummeled the competition, which included Regis Jesuit, another of the top-ranked teams in the country. There is a reason the pundits have them ranked at No. 1.

St. Mary’s seems to be more of a question mark. Though both the Xcellent 25 and the Powerade Fab 50 have them at No. 2 in the rankings, USA Today’s Super 25 pegs them as low as No. 20. In years past, they have competed in the Nike’s Joe Smith Division and seemed a bit over-seeded, taking more than their share of pastings.

Of course, St. Mary’s is not without assets of their own. The team has just two seniors, but both—lithe, willowy 6-3 forward/center Cortnee Walton (Louisville) and studious-looking guard Shilpa Tummala (Harvard)—have signed with D1 programs. Courtney Ekmark, a 6-0 sophomore guard, is a watch-listed prospect. They finished last season 25-2, winning the Arizona state championship while playing in Division 1 of Class 5A (normally reserved for schools with more than 1,200 students), even though their small size, an enrollment of approximately 775, would ordinarily place them in Class 3A. They were state runners-up in the previous two years.

Though more of a finesse team than Riverdale Baptist, the St. Mary’s Knights like to run the basketball and does it well.

And as Riverdale Baptist is about to find out, the Knights also own a special kind of chemistry. Part of it may come from playing together year-round, not just in the regular high-school season. Part of it may come from the fact that their coach has never shied away from competition, but instead has sought out challenges, pitting them against some of the best at the Nike and other elite tournaments year after year.

But there is little question in the minds of Coach Curtis Ekmark and his charges that a big part of it comes from the fact that the St. Mary’s squad is both literally and figuratively a family.

The St. Mary’s roster of 12 players features no fewer than three pairs of sisters. Cortnee Walton plays alongside her sister Brandee, a junior forward (5-10). Then there are twin guards Danielle and Dominique Williams, both 5-9 juniors. Coming along behind them, and promoted from the junior varsity for the Nike Tournament of Champions, are sophomore Aunesa Evans, a 5-10 forward, and little sis Ariah Evans, a 5-11 freshman, and also a forward.

Add to that Ekmark’s daughter Courtney, a 6-0 guard and one of the team’s leading scorers though just a sophomore.

Many of these teammates have played together since they were seven and eight years-old. Watch this team on the court—their nose for the basketball even in transition, the ease with which they seem to find each other, their deft and on-target (at least for this level) passes—and you’ll have an idea of the advantage this familiarity gives them.

Photo Caption: More than half of the players on the St. Mary’s roster are related by blood to at least one other member of the team. Coach Curt Ekmark said he acts proactively to avoid jealousy and strains by building an attitude on the part of the entire team that “they are all sisters.” There are also advantages of all the familial relationships, he added. “It cuts down by half the number of phone calls I have to make in order to get the word out.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy Kelly Kline Photography© for Full Court Press

Of course there are no lightweights at this stage of the Nike Tournament of Champions.

Since the event began in Santa Barbara, Calif., in December 1997, teams have journeyed from across the nation to pit their skills against each other. The event, now headquartered in Chandler, just outside Phoenix, Arizona, has grown exponentially over its 15-year history, and the quality of the talent it attracts has led many to dub it the de facto national championship of girls’ high school basketball.

Over the years, the tournament has witnessed the likes of a young Diana Taurasi—who went on to become a three-time NCAA national champion at the University of Connecticut, the No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft—and the league’s Rookie of the Year in 2004, a four-time WNBA All-Star and the league’s 2009 regular-season and finals MVP, and a two-time Olympic gold medalist—leading her high school team to victory in 1999.

In 2005, a teenaged Maya Moore of Collins Hill High School took to the floor against her future UConn teammate Tina Charles of Christ the King, in a high school game for the ages. The game went to double-overtime before Christ the King won it, 76-74. Both stars went on to win multiple national championships with the Huskies, both were top picks in the WNBA Draft, both became WNBA Rookies of the Year, and both are likely to represent the United States in the 2012 Olympics.

Five Tournament of Champions alumnae have gone on to win gold medals in the Beijing Olympics, six have become No. 1 picks in the WNBA Draft, and 33 have played in the WNBA. One hundred and eleven participating teams have gone on to win their state titles.

The event’s famed participants are too numerous to mention, but over the years more than 15,000 high school athletes drawn from 41 states and Canada have made the annual pilgrimage to put their skills to the test in the Nike TOC.

This year’s field of 86 teams, representing 21 states, journeyed more that 128,000 miles to get to the Tournament. They included all of this year’s top-five nationally ranked teams in the Xcellent 25 girls’ basketball rankings They also included 15 of the nation’s top teams as rated in USA Today’s Super 25 and 21 teams from the Powerade Top 50 preseason rankings, leading many to believe this might be one of the strongest fields ever.

And the very top-ranked teams among them compete against in the tournament’s Joe Smith Division, named for a late journalist who did much to promote the sport. To succeed in the Smith Division, you have to be better than good. You have to be perfect. A single loss at any point in the four-day competition will send you off to the consolation bracket.

On day one alone, three of the nation’s top-five ranked teams—No. 3 Bolingbrook (Ill.), No. 4 St. John’s Academy (Washington, D.C.) and No. 5 Irving MacArthur (Tex.) had been unceremoniously dispatched by lower-ranked teams. No. 12 Buford (Georgia), No. 21 St. Mary’s of Stockton, California (a team ranked as high as No. 7 in the Powerade Fab 50 and No. 12 in the USA Today Super 25), and Wesleyan of Norcross, Georgia (ranked No. 11 in Hoopgurlz’ Powerade Fab 50) had also hit the skids. After three days of fierce competition, still other prestigious and nationally ranked programs had fallen by the wayside, until on Thursday night, only two teams remained standing in the Joe Smith national championship bracket: Phoenix St. Mary’s and Riverdale Baptist.

How They Got There: St. Mary’s High School (Phoenix, Ariz.)


Game One: v. Six-time Nike Champion Christ the King (New York)—Win, 66-37

Game Two: v. No. 19-ranked Our Lady of Good Counsel (Maryland)—Win, 71-48

Game Three: v. USA Today’s No. 14-ranked Cicero-North Syracuse—Win 63-35

Game Four: v. No. 1-ranked Riverdale Baptist (Upper Marlboro, MD)—Win, 79-69

How They Got There: Riverdale Baptist (Upper Marlboro, MD)

Game One: v. USA Today’s No. 21-ranked Incarnate Word (St. Louis, Missouri)—Win, 53-44

Game Two: v. No. 10-ranked Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.)—Win, 56-46

Game Three: v. USA Today’s No. 16 Windward (Los Angeles, Calif.)—Win, 70-61

Game Four: v. No. 2-ranked St. Mary’s (Phoenix, Ariz.) - Loss, 69-79

St. Mary’s got out to a quick start, outscoring Riverdale Baptist 17-11 in the opening quarter and 18-15 in the second to take a nine-point lead into the break. St. Mary’s guard Shilpa Tummala had put up 13 points by the half, several on fast-break buckets initiated by her quick-handed steals.

Photo Caption: Shilpa Tummala won MVP honors at the Nike Tournament of Champions on Thursday, December 22, after leading her St. Mary’s Phoenix team to the title with 24 points and multiple steals in the title game.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Lee Michaelson©

Danielle Williams was less of a shooter and more of a passer than Tummala, but also had quick hands and a sense of timing that allowed her to steal the Crusaders blind.

Photo Caption: Holding down the St. Mary’s backcourt are twin sisters Danielle and Dominique Williams, both juniors and 5-9 guards. The two are quick of both foot and hand and crafty defenders, who bring to the court plenty of hustle and a knack for getting themselves to the foul line. They took 26 penalty shots between them in Thursday’s Nike Championship game.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Kelly Kline Photography© for Full Court Press

Moreover, despite their size disadvantage, the Knights were holding their own on the boards, with the slender Cortnee Walton holding her own against the beefier Crusader posts. On the downside, however, Walton picked up three early fouls in a game that was plagued with them—57 in all, resulting in 84 free throws between the two teams—and spent much of the opening half on the bench.

Photo Caption: Louisville-bound Cortnee Walton (right), a 6-3 senior, anchors the frontcourt for St. Mary’s, with younger sister Brandee Walton (right) to back her up. “We used to be competitive,” started Brandee. “That’s when we were younger,” Cortnee continued. “Now we just help each other get better,” the two agreed.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Kelly Kline Photography© for Full Court Press

As one observer pointed out, “This game is far from over.” Riverdale had looked a bit unfocused in the first half, as though they might have been taking this smaller opponent for granted and mentally polishing their trophy. Their coach, Diane Richardson, was likely to use the intermission to correct that situation, and at best, Walton would have to play more tentatively for the rest of the game.

But when the game resumed, the Knights continued to stretch their lead to as many as 14 points, using their quickness and perimeter shooting by Tummala and Courtney Ekmark to good advantage. Walton did foul out, heading to the bench for good having played just eight minutes for the entire game.

Photo Caption: Riverdale Baptist’s Jonquel Jones, a 6-0 wing who has signed to play for Clemson next year, posted 13 points before fouling out of the game. Jones was named to the Nike All-Tournament team for her efforts not only in the title game, but throughout the tournament.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Lee MIchaelson©

With Walton on the sidelines, the Knights were forced to call upon Chantel Osahor, a junior. At 6-1, an undersized post (Ekmark joked that you could “call [Osahor] 6-4 if you measure to the top of her hair”), Osahor is a big-bodied and not particularly athletic-looking kid, who proved to be surprisingly quick on her feet for her size. Though on defense she mostly patrolled the paint where she proved her ability to bang with the best of them, she spent at least as much of her time on offense on the perimeter as in the paint, and at times, because of her considerable passing skills, St. Mary’s even used her as their point guard to bring the ball down the court, breaking the press, which she also did surprisingly well.

Osahor was not a major scorer for St. Mary’s at any point in the tournament; in the final game, she tallied just six points, including a three-pointer. Instead, she seems content to set screens or pass the ball out to her teammates, one of whom called her “the best passer in the world.”

One long-time observer of the sport called Osahor St. Mary’s “moose,” in praise of her ability to bang for position and aggressively hit boards with the tallest of Riverdale’s “bigs.” In one moment that demonstrated her strength and tenaciousness, Osahor and Riverdale’s Kelila Atkinson both grabbed for the same board, with neither willing to give it up. Atkinson, a 5-8 guard, lifted both feet off the floor, putting her full weight behind her attempt to wrest it away from Osahor, who just stood there with the ball in both of her powerful hands and Atkinson dangling beneath it like a puppy unwilling to give up its bone. When the referees (and the entire arena) finally stopped laughing long enough to recover their breath, a tie ball was called.

In the end, it was Osahor (who played the entire fourth quarter with four fouls of her own), whose rebounding and foul shooting kept St. Mary’s in the game after Walton fouled out in the second half. So much so that this relative unknown, not high on anyone’s watch lists coming into the tournament, was named to the All-Tournament team.

Photo Caption: Defense, rebounding and foul-shooting by 6-1 forward/center Chantel’s Osahor, a St. Mary’s junior, saved the day for her team when her frontcourt-mate, Louisville-bound Cortnee Walton, found herself sidelined by foul trouble. Osahor’s was named to the Nike All-Tournament team for her outstanding performance.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Lee Michaelson©

With two minutes and change remaining in the third quarter and St. Mary’s now up, 48-34, the game was interrupted by a bizarre and, for a time, alarming accident. As players from both teams scrambled to recover a loose ball, Riverdale’s Dominique Johnson tumbled backwards from the sidelines and into her own bench. Coach Richardson, who had been standing right in her path, cried out, and several seconds later, crumpled to the floor.

Riverdale assistants attempted to help her rise, and most in the gymnasium seemed unaware that Richardson was injured, or how badly. But when Richardson failed to respond, Riverdale player Brittany Jenkins-Murray cried out, “Call somebody! Call somebody!” The panic and desperation in her voice were palpable.

Team, as well as Hamilton High, trainers and security guards rushed to Richardson’s aid, as Riverdale coaching assistants attempted to calm their players, several of whom were in tears. It seemed that as she fell, Johnson had caught Richardson in the chin, knocking her out cold. After a delay of some 20 to 30 minutes, the trainers had brought her around and had her sitting on the sidelines. Play was about to resume when the EMTs who had been summoned arrived, examining Richardson further.

Photo Caption: Chandler Fire Department paramedics attend Riverdale Baptist head coach Diane Richardson, who was knocked unconscious after one of her own players inadvertently collided with her during a scramble for a loose ball.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Lee Michaelson©

Richardson refused to be taken to the hospital, insisting on remaining to coach her team to the end of the game. But even as she left the building after the closing ceremonies close to 45 minutes later, Richardson had to be supported by a colleague and continued to appear dazed.

Photo Caption: Riverdale Baptist head coach Diane Richardson declined to be hospitalized after being knocked unconscious for approximately 20-30 minutes following a sidelines collision with one of her own players. Though still dazed and in need of physical support when leaving the building nearly an hour after the incident, Richardson insisted on returning to coach the rest of the game.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Lee Michaelson©

Those had been sobering minutes for both teams. When play finally got back under way, in an act that showed real class, every St. Mary’s player went first to the Riverdale bench to wish Richardson well before taking the floor. And though the physical play continued—Ekmark called it the “most physical game I’ve ever seen in girls basketball”—the game seemed even more tightly called and players from both teams responded not with complaints and arguments but a greater display of good sportsmanship, helping not only their teammates but also their opponents back up from the floor.

Photo Caption: Before returning to the court after an extended delay caused by a sidelines injury to Riverdale Baptist head coach Diane Richardson (in white blouse, seated on bench, accepting handshake from St. Mary’s No. 4, Dominique Williams), St. Mary’s players demonstrated their sportsmanship, stopping first at the Riverdale bench to salute the opposing coach. Kelila Atkinson (Blue, No. 22), who finished with 12 points for Riverdale in the title game and is committed to play for Wake Forest next season, and Dominique Johnson (Blue, No. 1) whose spill out-of-bounds while attempting to wrangle a loose ball caused Richardson’s injury, are seen in the foreground.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Lee Michaelson©

After the break, St. Mary’s shooters seemed to have cooled a bit, while Riverdale played with a greater sense of purpose. But it didn’t matter much, since most of the final period was played at the foul line.

Photo Caption: Following along in St. Mary’s sisterly tradition are sophomore forward Aunesa Evans (5-10) and little sis Ariah Evans, already 5-11 though only a freshman. They spend most of their time on the junior varsity and didn’t see much action during this year’s Nike Tournament, but having tasted sweet success, you can bet they’ll be aching to get back to the victory stand.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Kelly Kline Photography© for Full Court Press

The Nike Tournament is played under Arizona rules which do not use a shot clock in girls’ high school basketball. That one rule variation can make a huge difference in the outcome (and snooze effect) of games, since a team with even a slight lead and enough discipline can spend much of the final minutes playing “keep away” while running the clock, leaving their opponents with little choice but to put them at the foul line and force them to maintain their lead by making their penalty shots. (As a result, even a game that has been tight from start to finish can end with a nine-to-ten point differential.)

Though Maryland is one of the eight states that does use a shot clock in high school ball, the still groggy Richardson was one of the few coaches in the tournament who seemed to understand the significance of Arizona’s rule difference to start the trip to the foul line with more than four minutes left, early enough to have turned things around had the strategy worked.

Riverdale fans who were not clued into the rules difference complained vocally (and at times, blasphemously), but most of the fouls were intentional to stop the clock. St. Mary’s took 48 of their 57 free throws after the late-third quarter injury to Richardson, and 12 of them in the final two minutes alone. They made enough of them to see them through to a 79-69 victory, and missed just enough to allow Riverdale to narrow the gap behind the mid-range jump shooting of the athletic Jennie Simms, who finished with 12 points, and the post work of Jonquel Jones, who tallied a double-double of 13 points and 12 boards.

Photo Caption: Riverdale Baptist senior Jennie Simms, an impressively athletic 6-0 wing who is headed to West Virginia next year, led the Crusaders with 15 points in the title game. Jones, who was named to the Nike All-Tournament team for her outstanding performance, can create her own shot from both mid-range and in the paint, and owns a sweet baby hook to go with her mid-distance jump-shooting.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Lee MIchaelson©

Chloe Jackson contributed 12 points for the Crusaders, while Atkinson added 10 before fouling out of the game. Auteonna Gilmore, who also fouled out, chipped in six.

Photo Caption: Riverdale guard Autwonna Gilmore, a junior, head to the hoop in the NIke title game. Gilmore logged six points before fouling out of the game.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Lee Michaelson©

Photo Caption: Rounding out the St. Mary’s family act is 6-0 guard Courtney Ekmark, a sophomore and the daughter of St. Mary’s head coach Curtis Ekmark. Courtney, a steely-eyed perimeter sharpshooter who is as good if not better from the charity stripe, was the leading scorer in the Nike Championship game and throughout St. Mary’s tournament run. “I don’t try to treat my daughter like all the other players,” said Coach Ekmark. “I treat the rest of the team like I would my own daughter.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy Kelly Kline Photography© for Full Court Press

Courtney Ekmark led the way for St. Mary’s with 26 points, including two three-pointers. She was a dead-eyed eight-for-ten from the foul line in the final quarter, helping the Knights to preserve their advantage. How Ekmark, who was St. Mary’s leading scorer in the other tournament games as well, was overlooked for the All-Tournament team is a mystery to me, but she seemed delighted with the tournament win and unconcerned about the lack of individual accolades.

Photo Caption: Courtney Ekmark, a 6-0 sophomore guard, led all players in scoring with 26 points in the title game. Ekmark is a strong perimeter shooter, who moves well both with and without the basketball, and can just as easily pull up to knock down a three-pointer as cut backdoor for an easy lay-up. But it was her steeliness from the penalty stripe, especially down the stretch when she hit 10-of-12 of her free throws, that sealed the deal for St. Mary’s.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Lee Michaelson


Tummala was hot on Ekmark’s heels with 24 points, also including two treys, and her energy ignited key runs for the Knights at critical moments. She was justly honored as the MVP of the Smith Division.

St. Mary’s also got double-digit scoring from Danielle Williams, a scrappy guard with a knack for getting herself to the line. All of Williams’ 12 points came from the charity stripe.

Photo Caption: St. Mary’s players celebrate their 79-69 win over Riverdale Baptist in the title game of the Nike Tournament of Champions’ prestigious Joe Smith Division on Thursday, December 22, 2011, in Chandler, Ariz.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Lee Michaelson©

There was another element of the St. Mary’s family on hand, and they were as excited as the players and their coach as they watch the team collect their championship hardware. A contingent of St. Mary’s students, decked out in Kelly green, has stood throughout the entire game, cheering on their team.

“We don’t sit,” said one of their number, Anastasia Garcia.

They call themselves the “Feature Creatures,” and turn out at all the Saint Mary’s athletic events—“both boys’ and girls’,” one student hastened to tell me—to support their schoolmates. Though their numbers are diminished, one told me, because many are away for the Christmas holiday, they are in full voice. There’s no missing them tonight, even in this packed gymnasium.

Photo Caption: The “Feature Creatures,” a sua sponte spirit squad from St. Mary’s High School in Phoenix, Ariz., stood throughout the entire Nike Tournament of Champions title game to cheer their schoolmates on to victory.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Lee Michaelson©

“I’m pumped! Just totally pumped!” said Isaiah Watson at the half, considering the possibility that his school’s team might be unofficial national champs in another 16 minutes.

“They deserve it,” said Garcia. “They’re just awesome. They work so hard. ... They bring a lot of pride to our school.”

When told that Riverdale Baptist came into the game a heavy favorite, Garcia acknowledged that their opponents were much bigger, but quickly noted, “We’re quicker, though.”

Then she added, “But win or lose, I know they’ll do it with class.”

She couldn’t have been more right.

Photo Caption: As the gym empties, St. Mary’s players share the joy of the moment with schoolmates from the Feature Creatures who had come to cheer them on. St. Mary’s won the elite division of the Nike Tournament of Champions on December 22, 2011 in Chandler, Ariz., beating Riverdale Baptist of Upper Marlboro, Md., 79-69, in a hotly contested and physical game.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Lee Michaelson©



Originally published Fri, December 23, 2011

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