The visitors jinx came to a glorious end tonight for Pima in its peculiar rivalry with Mesa, and with that, the Aztecs are going to their sixth NJCAA Division II tournament.
Entering tonight, the teams met in 10 of the previous 11 years in the NJCAA Region I, Division II title game with the home team emerging victorious each time.
Not this time. The Aztecs overpowered Mesa on the road, winning 76-59 behind 17 points apiece from former Marana standout Alyssa Perez and Haile Gleason, both sophomores who experienced a run to the national tournament last season.
Pima (25-7) will play in the national tournament at Huron, Mich., from March 17-21.
“I just feel happy for the kids, proud of the kids,” Pima coach Todd Holthaus said. “The sophomores did an amazing job leading all year, and this year (at Mesa) was good.”
Perez, a playmaking guard who is a captain of the team, was selected the NJCAA Region I, Division II Most Valuable Player. She made 6 of 9 shots from the field and also had seven rebounds.
“Now it’s just time to work harder than ever,” Perez said. “We have to step our game up. It’s a good win, to win by 20 going into nationals. No better feeling than that.
“Making history … neither team has won on the road. To be the first? It’s a great feeling.”
HISTORY MADE!!!!! Aztecs women’s basketball CAPTURES THE NJCAA REGION I, DIVISION II TITLE with a 76-59 win over Mesa CC. First time in this storied rivalry that the road team has won in the Region finals. #PimaBasketball pic.twitter.com/fWKjwltbu1
Some freshmen also proved to be the difference for Holthaus’ team.
Fama Thiam, a freshman from Senegal, energized Pima by constantly breaking down Mesa’s defense. She finished with 10 points with five rebounds and two assists.
Former Palo Verde standout Aaliyah Ortiz went from leading the Titans last year to being vital to the Aztecs making the national tournament. She had 12 points and six assists.
Coach Todd Holthaus was proud of his sophomores especially with Alyssa Perez settling everybody down with her 1st three-pointer. He has never been to Michigan and is ready to go to Nationals. #PimaBasketball pic.twitter.com/PkNVr9O94c
And Las Vegas product Sierra Mich’l came off the bench for 13 points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots.
“We came prepared and we knew exactly what we needed to do,” Thiam said. “The coaches got me ready for this game. They told me to pick up every point guard, and that’s what I did.”
Mesa shot only 28.1 percent from the field including a 5-of-22 performance from 3-point range. Pima tallied nine blocked shots and also outrebounded Mesa 38-31.
Pima overcame 24 turnovers by getting back on defense and limiting Mesa’s scoring opportunities. Mesa had 10 more field goal attempts (64 to 54) but the Aztecs made more shots (26 to 18).
“(Perez) made that first 3 (of the game) and we just needed to play good D,” Holthaus said. “We always have a hard time scoring here. So playing good D, we knew we were going to be in the game. We just wanted to make sure we were still in the game by the fourth quarter.”
The bus to Tucson was warming up by the start of the fourth quarter with Pima well ahead, 59-42.
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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.