In their first playoff appearance in more than six years, the Salt River High School Eagles boy’s basketball team lost in the Division IV first-round playoff match-up on February 21 against the Arizona Charter Academy Bulldogs from Surprise.
The Eagles were nothing less than competitive and came out confident, pulling away from the Bulldogs early in the first quarter. “Our plan is to make our shots and slow down their game. They don’t really pass much. It’s a fast game. If we slow them down, we control the game,” said head coach Dino Puccetti when asked about the team’s strategy before the start of the game. Earlier in the season, the Eagles faced the Bulldogs and lost by 9 points.
At the end of the first quarter, the Eagles were on top, 5-13. In the second quarter, however, the Bulldogs challenged the Eagles with an unfamiliar adjustment, using the diamond press defense, a defense that causes pressure on inbound passes and ultimately leads to turnovers.
“We weren’t ready for that to jump at us. We never saw that on film,” said Puccetti. “But, to make the adjustment, we just reminded [the players] to stay calm, reminded them what to do in that situation and get back to work, like they have been doing all year.”
The Bulldogs came back, tying the score at 22-22 just before the end of the half.
After halftime, it was the Bulldogs who came out with momentum on their side, going on a 12-0 run. But the Eagles made sure they weren’t going to hand over the win to the Bulldogs. They worked too hard to get to the playoffs and made too many sacrifices to go out like that—so they made an adjustment of their own.
Climbing out of the deficit, the Eagles pulled together, playing their game. With 5:38 left in the fourth quarter, No. 34 Isaiah Roberts tied it up. After the comeback, scoring went back and forth, trading 3-point shots, leading by 2 or 3 points, and then back to a tie. Down by 2, the Bulldogs’ leading scorer, DaiSean Kirk, tied the game with 56 seconds left on the clock. Unable to find the basket, both teams watched as the Bulldogs’ second leading scorer, Devon Driver went to the line after a questionable foul by Isaiah Manuel, who fouled out. Driver missed his foul shot, and, after a desperate attempt by Roberts to score, the game went into overtime.
AIA regulation for overtime is only four minutes in high school basketball.
From the overtime tip-off, the Bulldogs came out with a 6-0 run and never looked back. The Eagles had a difficult time finding the basket. After several attempts, the Eagles’ John Hill scored with only 34 seconds left, but it wasn’t enough. The Eagles went down with a fight, 68-60.
In his third year as head coach for the Eagles, Pucetti led the Eagles to their first playoff appearance since the 2006-07 season.
When asked what this season meant for him, Pucetti replied, “It’s special for the coaches, but it’s about the seniors. There is a core group that has been battling for four years, and they deserve all the accolades at this point. They left it all on the floor, and I cannot be prouder of them.”
Rob Norris, a fourth-year player for the Eagles, explained what was going through his mind. “This is what we wanted to accomplish at the beginning of the year. We made it [to the finals], but this isn’t how we wanted it to end. In overtime it was a new game, starting from zero, and we did what we had to do to win.”
“I went out the way I wanted to. We are still family. We left it all on the court, and we played with heart,” said Roberts. “In overtime it was go hard or go home. We are all brothers, whether we won or lost, in my book. It was a good game, a great opportunity. I love this team and I’m glad I got to be here with these gentlemen. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
“It’s exciting to be here, I thought about it all week,” said Mahki Marcus. “But, this isn’t the way I wanted go out.”
Parents of the players also had their own perspectives on the game. “As a parent, it’s heart-stopping to watch a game like this,” said Wayne Marcus, father of Mahki Marcus. When asked what he thought while watching a game as exciting as this, and knowing it might be his son’s last time playing basketball, he said, “You’re at the edge of your seat. For me, it’s bittersweet because I started him out in the peewee basketball league, and now he’s a senior this year, so it makes it harder. It’s tough to sit through a game like this and lose.”
Hill was one of the core seniors who helped get the team to the playoffs and one of the founders of the team that got the Eagles to state. He said, “Feels amazing to be here, even though it was a hard loss. But overall I think it was a great experience.”
“I still believe going through our section is the toughest in Division IV. In my opinion we are just as good as the team that we played and we are in the top 15 of the division,” added Puccetti.