TEMPE – Most state championship winners spend the weeks following their victory celebrating a hard-fought season. That, however, was not the case for the Desert Vista High School Thunder girls basketball team, which spent last weekend in Washington D.C. competing against the best teams in the country.
Toward the close of their 2022-2023 season, coach Dave Williams received word that his team would join the State Champions Invitational Tournament. Paid for and sponsored by ESPN, the 18th-ranked team in the nation traveled together, along with family members.
“I expect to be at this level all the time because of our work habits and because of our commitment to quality,” Williams said. “For me, it verifies that hard work pays off and team and family commitment and patience and character pays off.”
There was a positive aura in the Desert Vista gym earlier this month during practices leading up to the tournament. While players remained competitive and dialed into their drills, there was constant chatter among players and coaches.
The state championship trophy, won in March, proudly sat by the front entrance of the gym as a daily reminder to every player of the opportunity to add to their school’s trophy case. Entering the season, they had high expectations after a 2022 season that resulted in a division semifinals loss, but took off this season following the additions of freshman standout Jerzy Robinson, the top-ranked player in the class of 2026, and junior transfer Shay Ijiwoye.
The Thunder finished with a 28-3 record, and a 14-0 home record, while winning 28 games by double-digits before capping off the impressive postseason with a 63-37 victory over Millenium to earn the state title.
Last weekend’s tournament was a high honor and brought plenty of excitement after its inaugural event last year. All six featured teams were state champions and ranked in the top 25 nationally.
Williams was ecstatic the girls earned this lifelong memory.
“Whatever the situation is going to be, it’s because of them,” Williams said. “They did all this hard work and committed to it.”
The single-elimination tournament was described by junior Eanae Dagons as their own March Madness, which ended earlier in the week with LSU and UConn taking home the men’s and women’s national championships.
“I never would have thought that we would go to D.C. and go play basketball at Georgetown University … I think it’s good for all of us to come back and say we had these memories,” Dagons said.
The Thunder kicked off the quarterfinals with a 67-59 victory over No. 5-ranked Morris Catholic. They were dominant throughout the contest, led by Jerzy Robsinson’s 20 points and Shay Ijiwoye’s 19.
In the semifinals, however, Desert Vista fell to Lone Peak, 68-60 after a near rally in the fourth quarter. In a game that featured a very competitive first half, a 23-9 third-quarter run by Lone Peak became too much to overcome, despite a 17-2 run near the three-minute mark in the fourth quarter. They were able to pull within eight, but ultimately couldn’t complete the comeback.
It was a disappointing outcome, but the future couldn’t be brighter for a Thunder team returning most of its roster next season. Led by Robinson, the program has the chance to become a powerhouse in the state in the coming seasons.
An invite to compete in Washington D.C. is a tribute to their current success and only the start. But above all else, Williams is excited for the opportunity for his team to make this trip a core memory.
The tournament itself is important, but no matter the result they have this incredible experience to remember with their closest friends forever. Coach Williams is searching for accolades, but above all else, a memorable experience for his team.
“The main thing I want them to understand is someone liked you enough to send you to a national tournament and respected you enough as a program to bring you out to Washington D.C.,” Williams said. “If you commit yourself and care about what you’re doing, good things can happen.
“There’s no way in the world I’m going to be upset with this team … and now we’re on ESPN and we’re playing the best teams in the country. We balled.”