Editor's note: This story first appeared Sunday as an exclusive for our print readers.
The coach's wife wore a black T-shirt to the state championship game Saturday. On the back of Patricia Hurley's shirt was a picture of a snarling Panther, a basketball trapped between its jaws.
You could write 1,000 words about the Panthers' 87-77 historic victory over Tempe High School, but Patricia Hurley's T-shirt told the story all by itself.
Team Jaws won it all.
Two minutes into the 4A-II title game, Amphi already had forced three turnovers. This is the way it would be for Ben Hurley's team: five forced turnovers in the first quarter and 16 by halftime. The velocity was such, 32 minutes of fury, that even the referees were gassed.
"Ben's team plays the way he coaches: passionate, competitive and poised," said former Panthers head coach Pat Derksen, the man who hired Hurley 10 years ago and became his assistant in 2008. "He just doesn't let up and neither does this team."
In the first 43 seconds of the second half, Amphi forced three more turnovers. Lester Medford stole a pass. Tim Derksen tipped a ball to a teammate. Domineik Banks intercepted a pass. All led to easy fast-break baskets.
The biggest game of the year, the most meaningful basketball game in the 73-year history of Amphitheater High School, was decided with 15 minutes remaining. The Panthers led 49-24. The Panthers' fabulous three-year run, 84-12 overall, was capped by the first state championship in school history.
In a corridor at Jobing.com Arena, Medford, a senior guard, carried a gold-painted basketball and the nets his teammates had just clipped from the rims. Medford had, by far, the biggest smile in the place, and yet he probably played the least effective game of his Amphi career. He scored three points and missed 5 of 6 foul shots.
"Doesn't matter what I did," said Medford, who averaged 19.7 points this season. "Last year, we lost the state championship game by two points. We waited all year for another chance. All that matters is that we're taking this trophy home."
Medford's attitude is the working definition of Hurley's fourth Amphi team. Ten guys play. Everybody pulls his weight. When you play at the Panthers' speed - fast and faster - it can't be any other way.
Entering Saturday's game, junior guard Tony Lillard, who never seems to get tired, was averaging 5.4 points per game. He has been in a shooting slump, to put it nicely. Over the course of the season, he made just six of 55 three-point attempts. That's 11 percent.
He had missed 26 of his last 27 threes.
But on Saturday, Lillard could've won a three-point shooting contest against Steve Kerr. He buried his first three attempts. He made four of his first five. On a day Medford wasn't at his best, Amphi's everybody-shoulders-a-load system flourished.
"They left me open," Lillard said with a laugh. "I have the worst shooting percentage on the team, but the coaches and the players told me to just keep shooting. It's funny, because in shoot-around earlier today, I couldn't make anything."
There is credit to be shared: Lillard's father, Rodney, bought his son a new pair of sneakers the day before the biggest game of the year. And his son played so well, with a season-high 17 points, that you'd think he had a shoe-endorsement deal by now.
Such are state championships won. One star ebbs, another is found.
Until Hurley came along, Amphi had played in one state championship game in 60 years. That was 1949 when Hall of Fame coach George Genung's team lost 49-26 to Tucson High. How's this for coincidence: Early in the second half Saturday, Amphi led the Buffaloes 49-26.
The score had been reversed. The only lingering hurt was from last year's last-second loss to Santa Rita in the state title game.
Hurley is a Rincon High and UA grad, who got his first job coaching the girls freshman team at Canyon del Oro, working as a security guard to keep money in his pocket while he earned a degree. He subsequently appealed to Derksen, Amphi's head basketball coach for 21 years, for a job.
Over the next 10 years, Hurley paid some serious dues. He coached golf and volleyball. He coached freshmen and junior varsity teams. When Derksen retired after the 2007 season, Hurley and his disruptive, force-the-action style, was the clear man for the job.
Amphi went 12-16 in his first year, followed by 26-7, 29-3 and now 29-2.
"He's a real student of the game," said Derksen. "He stressed chemistry and hard work. He has never been afraid to put in the time, year-round. He took it to the next level."
At game's end Saturday, Hurley hugged his 2-year-old daughter, Caitlin, embracing her the way he would later hug his championship ballplayers and assistant coaches.
"I might even cry later," he admitted. But this time, the tears from a state championship game would be tears of joy.
On StarNet: See more photos from Saturday's state basketball championships at azstarnet.com/gallery
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