Spring Valley’s girls basketball team won the Gator Winter Classic last year in part because of Essence Booker and Kayla Harris, former Grizzlies standouts now excelling in college.
No excuses, though, for coach Billy Hemberger.
Spring Valley (7-5) embarked on an 11-2 run midway through the second quarter Thursday and made a series of defensive stops and free throws in the final minutes to secure a 44-40 victory over West Anchorage (Alaska) at Green Valley and a berth in the tournament’s diamond division.
Bracket play begins Friday, and the defending champions have their sights set on another title.
“We love this tournament. I feel like it’s the best tournament in the city, as far as the way its run, just the variation of teams,” Hemberger said. “It’s a phenomenal tournament, and we always look forward to coming. It’s at the right time, the second part to the season.”
The Grizzlies dropped three of their first five games as they worked to mitigate the departures of Booker (UNR) and Harris (Cochise College), and injuries to sophomore Garrisen Freeman and freshman Aaliyah Gayles.
But Spring Valley has its full complement of players for the Gator Winter Classic and finished 3-0 in pool play by fending off the Eagles, who rolled Thursday to an 18-10 lead behind senior Azaria Robinson.
The 6-foot-2-inch forward patrolled the paint on both ends of the floor, prompting Hemberger to utilize a five-guard lineup that pulled Robinson away from the basket. The Grizzlies found a rhythm and staved off a fourth-quarter rally despite 29 turnovers.
“The beginning of the season isn’t what we expected,” said Grizzlies guard Chelsea Camara, who had a team-high 15 points and seven rebounds. “But we stick together through adversity, and that’s why things are finally changing.”
Freeman added 14 points for Spring Valley. Robinson scored a game-high 26.
“We’ve done a good job of weathering the storm against the competition we’ve played,” Hemberger said. “Our best basketball is ahead of us.”