The fight within Pima’s all-everything guard J.J. Nakai was on display Saturday night at Pima’s West Gym and it had nothing to do with her game-high 30 points in the 80-58 win over Mesa in the NJCAA Region I, Division II championship game.
It had to do with her being a little upset with coach Todd Holthaus for taking her out of the game after she became hobbled with her left ankle slightly twisted while going after a loose ball in the first half.
After she sat for a only minute, she returned and Holthaus asked if she was ready.
“I’m fine!” she said sternly.
Priceless moment for Pima's J.J. Nakai, the Region I MVP (awarded tonight) pic.twitter.com/wxInapO2WB
“You don’t have to get mad at me,” Holthaus said.
After the game, following the celebration, she walked around the court with a slight limp.
“I’m hurting,” she said, but she did so with a grin.
The good news for Pima (21-11) is that it does not play in the NJCAA national tournament until March 19 at Harrison, Ark., so Nakai has the opportunity to rest and get healthy. The Pima men won their regional title Friday night. This is the first year since 2010 the men and women will advance to the national tournament.
Even if she still felt pain by the time the national tournament starts, Nakai would be out there playing.
Longtime Arizona men's hoops assistant Jim Rosborough tells the Aztecs, "We're number one!" Ros is an an assistant for Todd Holthaus with the Pima women. pic.twitter.com/Vr5ISQ4LRA
In the second half of Saturday night’s game, despite her ankle soreness, she had 22 of her 30 points, most of them coming on the free throw line following aggressive drives to the basket, where she made 11 of 12 attempts.
“She got mad at me when I took her out, but she’s a coach’s dream, to be honest,” Holthaus said, the net of which he cut the last strand during the postgame celebration, around his neck.
Holthaus, in his 12th season as Pima’s coach, did not hesitate to say that Nakai, “is the best I’ve coached.”
Pima guard J.J. Nakai talks about drawing triple-team and sometimes quadruple-team defenses that open things up for teammates or she draws the foul with her penetration. She took 12 of Pima's 16 free throws and made 11 in tonight's region title over Mesa. pic.twitter.com/WkbS0WObMx
“That’s not a disrespect to anybody. It’s just because she worked at it the hardest,” Holthaus said. “I’m an Iowa farm boy (from West Union, Iowa). We just grew up that way. We worked hard whether you lived on the farm or not.
“You got up and got chores done whether the sun was shining or not. J.J. comes in the gym and shoots whether she feels like it or not and she just plays. … There’s a reason why she’s great. She just works.”
Nakai’s ability to draw triple-team and, yes, quadruple-team defenses on occasion makes her such a threat for her teammates. She distributes the ball or regularly draws fouls. She can also shoot, evidenced by her being the program’s career scoring leader.
She now has 1,306 career points. The points that matter most to her is what she makes with her teammates loving to play with her.
Former Marana High School standout Alyssa Perez, a freshman, had 12 points on 5 of 9 shooting in the 80-58 win over Mesa in the regional championship game. She called it her best performance of the season, especially with the importance of the game. pic.twitter.com/DDw6lTMjnR
“It’s fun. She pushes the ball,” freshman guard Alyssa Perez said about the experience of playing with Nakai. “If you’re open, she’s going to find you. So I never have to worry about her getting the ball up … how fast-paced she plays, it’s fun.”
Perez said she experienced the best game of her young Pima career with 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting. The former Marana standout embodies much of the same fearless characteristics of Nakai.
“Alyssa is tough. She just played the way she is capable of,” Holthaus said. “I thought in the first half, all of our freshmen played so well. AP (Perez), Haile (Gleason) and Hallie (Lawson) Everybody thinks it’s going to be J.J. For them to come out like that, it’s just a big confidence builder.”
Pima freshman Alyssa Perez talks about how fun it is to play with MVP point guard J.J. Nakai. The Aztecs are headed to the NJCAA Division II national tournament in Harrison, Ark., starting March 19. pic.twitter.com/MwtDglPRdo
The freshman trio combined for 27 points. Sophomore forward Shauna Bribiescas had another solid performance with eight points and 10 rebounds. Sophomore guard Ryleigh Long finished with 13 points, hitting 3 of 5 shots from beyond the arc.
Nakai likens the whole group to a family, one that “trusted each other.”
“We just knew how to work together. It was teamwork. All of us contributed. It was a great team win,” she said.
Pima MVP guard J.J. Nakai talks about playing her last game at the Aztec West Gym in the 80-58 win over Mesa in the region championship. She tallied 30 points with six assists and made 11 of 12 at the free throw line. pic.twitter.com/oYvEFs9yvA