A few minutes after the Pima women’s basketball team pulled away from South Mountain in its NJCAA Region I, Division II playoff game, the Aztecs gathered around media relations director Raymond Suarez courtside to watch on his computer the waning seconds of the men’s playoff game at Scottsdale.
The Aztecs and coach Todd Holthaus left the West Gym happy tonight with both outcomes.
The women (24-7) beat South Mountain 77-65 to win their eighth straight game. They overcame an early 10-0 deficit against South Mountain, outscoring the Cougars 44-29 in the second half behind a 27-16 rebounding edge.
.@PimaWBB overcame an early 10-0 deficit to overpower South Mountain 77-65. Marlena Arroyo-Plata had 10 points and 13 rebounds to lead the Aztecs’ dominance in rebounds 53-38, including a 27-16 edge in the second half. pic.twitter.com/tSHl86c9T8
The men, seeded No. 4, escaped with a 71-69 upset win over No. 1 Scottsdale behind Rashad Smith’s 3-point play with 9 seconds left. The Aztecs held on after leading by more than 10 points in the second half.
The men (19-12) play at No. 2 Glendale on Friday at 7:30 p.m. in the region title game. Glendale beat Phoenix College 88-72 in the other playoff game tonight.
The women’s team, seeded No. 2, advances to play at No. 1 Mesa in the championship game on Saturday at 7 p.m. It will be the 11th time in the last 12 years that Pima will meet Mesa in the region finals. The home team has won each meeting, including the Aztecs 80-58 last season.
“It’s a war,” Holthaus said of the series with Mesa.
.@PimaWBB freshman post player Sierra Mich’l of Las Vegas had 17 points and eight rebounds for the Aztecs off the bench. A good weapon for @AztecCoachTodd as a reserve who does not allow a dropoff for Pima when she enters the game. pic.twitter.com/Lrx2nVllZE
In terms of a road team finally breaking through with a win, such as Pima on Saturday night, Holthaus said, “At some point, somebody is going to have to do it, right? That’s what I believe.”
A belief in their ability to come together at the right time has put the Aztecs one game from reaching the national tournament after losing three out of four games at the end of January and beginning of February.
Included in the current eight-game winning streak is a 58-46 win over Mesa at Pima’s West Gym on Feb. 12.
“It’s a mark of good kids that will want to get better throughout the year and not get comfortable,” Holthaus said. “We probably do a good job of staying on them and keeping them focused. We don’t want to settle for just a good season.
“We want to win a national championship. So there’s a certain amount of drive that has to come with that.”
The comeback victory over South Mountain is Pima’s season in microcosm. The Aztecs came out timid, and the Cougars looked more determined taking a 10-0 lead. Holthaus, whose staff includes Jim Rosborough, a former longtime Lute Olson assistant at Arizona, did not panic by calling a timeout. He let his team play on and the Aztecs came back to trail only 25-23 at the end of the first quarter.
The Aztecs continued to trail at halftime 36-33 with seven turnovers while forcing South Mountain into only three. The Cougars lost at Pima 97-68 less than three weeks ago. In that game, Pima outrebounded South Mountain 65-35 (not a misprint), and at halftime tonight, the Aztecs led in that category by only 26-22.
“Rebounding is pure effort,” said Pima freshman Sierra Mich’l, who had 17 points and nine rebounds after going scoreless in the first half with two rebounds.
“There’s games that the ball comes to you and there are games that it doesn’t. Rebounding is effort. Every rebound has to be yours. We have a high average over pretty much every other team in our conference, so it’s definitely something we work toward.”
Hallie Lawson takes the interior feed from Marlena Arroyo-Plata and scores. Pima trails 34-33 with 2:39 left 2Q. pic.twitter.com/sdpVYMVOVh
Sophomore Marlena Arroyo-Plata, who recently replaced Mich’l in the starting lineup, finished with a team-high 13 rebounds with 10 points. Hallie Lawson, one of the more experienced Aztecs along with guard Alyssa Perez, finished with 18 points and eight rebounds before she hurt her left leg in the fourth quarter.
Lawson was tended to by trainers and did not return. She did walk under her own power after the game, so she should be ready for Saturday’s game.
“We definitely have to come out stronger from the jump,” Arroyo-Plata said about the slow start tonight. “We just got punched in the throat. If we punched them in the throat from the start we wouldn’t have been down that much in the beginning.”
Of the second-half rebounding dominance, Arroyo-Plata said, “I definitely think it was just toughness. We were just tougher than them in the second half. We came out getting boards and making shots; that was the deciding factor in the game.”
Arroyo-Plata is one of only four sophomores on the roster along with Perez, guard Haile Gleason and Lawson. Perez had 10 points and seven rebounds, and Gleason finished with nine points.
Freshman guard Fama Thiam, a standout from Senegal, scored six of her 11 points on three consecutive possessions in the fourth quarter to strengthen Pima’s lead. She also had six rebounds.
Pima had five players score in double-figures and five players with at least six rebounds.
“Traditionally, teams that I’ve coached, we have four or five players who get around 10 points. That way we are a little more balanced and we don’t rely on one person if the one person is off or hurt,” Holthaus said. “We can make up for it with balanced team play. I thought we did a really good job. I’m proud of them.”
NOTES: Palo Verde guard Angel Addleman, a senior standout who began her career at Pusch Ridge, attended the game. She has Pima as one of her finalists. … Pueblo’s Mariah Clark, out this season with a knee injury, is also high on Pima’s recruiting list. Clark and Addleman and their parents spoke with Holthaus after tonight’s game.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.