If Alyssa Perez did not sit down with Pima coach Todd Holthaus for a heart-to-heart discussion midway through her freshman season, and just decided to quit playing basketball, who knows what her outlook on life would be right now.
“We literally sat on that bleacher over there,” Holthaus said at Pima’s West Campus Gymasium, pointing to a row of seats. “And she looked me in the eyes and was crying, saying, ‘Coach, I don’t know if I’m good enough to do this.”
Holthaus was floored.
Perez was a special talent he believed in since her days at Marana High School as a four-year varsity member from 2014-18. She eclipsed 1,000 points in her career with 1,080 and also amassed 370 steals for the Tigers. More than the numbers, she was a catalyst to the highest degree.
At Christmas time during her freshman season at Pima, she was not in a festive mood, which brought about her conversation with Holthaus. She took on mostly a reserve role at the time behind J.J. Nakai, an All-American who became Pima’s career scoring leader. Facing Nakai in practice daily, a tough task for anybody, let alone a freshman, and struggling from the field in Pima’s first 11 games of the 2018-19 season, Perez had second thoughts about her ability.
At that point, she was shooting 18-of-79 (22.9 percent from the field) and she went into the holiday break without a 3-pointer in four games, going 0-of-9 from that range in that span.
“I did go through a little slump where I wasn’t performing the way I wanted to and wasn’t meeting my self expectations and it turned into a high level of frustration, and one day I talked with coach and told him that I wanted to quit basketball,” Perez said.
Holthaus said he looked at her concerned and said, ‘Shut the hell up,” in his true fatherly type of voice.
“You’re way better than you think you are and this is all part of being a freshman,” he said he told her. “It’s all part of playing in a good program. So if you want to get better, you have to struggle. That’s the only way to find your way to get better.”
Those were the reassuring words Perez needed to hear.
“At that time, I just felt like while everyone else was excelling, I was just staying the same and I didn’t belong and I thought to myself, ‘If I can’t produce at this level, I’m not gonna be able to produce at a higher level.'”
Holthaus, and other coaches who can communicate to their players, often bring up the rollercoaster ride athletes must take to reach their highest level of success.
Steve Kerr, practically unrecruited out of high school, was not a freshman sensation at Arizona. He started only one game and — get this — he made only 69.2 percent of his free throw attempts and had as many assists (35) as turnovers. His career totals: 102 starts, 81.5 percent free throw shooter, 443 assists and only 168 turnovers.
“There’s gonna be high points and low points, and as a freshman, you can’t expect it to be all high points because there’s a lot of transitioning happening,” Perez said. “One thing (Holthaus) always says is to ‘trust the process’ and that’s what I did.”
Personal note w/this story on @PimaWBB‘s coaching staff. Covered Jim Rosborough when he was at UA. One of best I’ve dealt with. @AztecCoachTodd same endearing type. Heartbroken this incredible staff & players can’t reach goal of their first national title: https://t.co/QXibQ8rEKA
Perez improved from 4.7 minutes per game as a freshman to 26.8 this season. She went from 4.1 rebounds a game to 5.3 this season as a 5-foot-7 guard. Her assists went from 2.1 a game to 3.1 and her steals improved from 1.5 to 2.3.
To add insight to her hustle stats — rebounding and steals — Arizona All-American guard Aari McDonald (5-foot-6) is about the same height as Perez and she averaged 5.6 rebounds and 2.3 steals a game this season (similar stats as Perez albeit at a different level but it shows Perez’s intensity level is comparable to that of the energetic McDonald).
“She’s been a joy to coach because the thing I always say about AP, and probably the best thing I say about her, is I never doubt effort,” Holthaus said. “I always know what I’m going to get. As a coach, you just want to know consistency. You’re not gonna make all your shots here, but if I know you’re gonna work your ass off every game, that’s comforting as a coach.”
Perez’s perseverance paid off with her earning MVP honors of the ACCAC Region I Division II championship last month over nemesis Mesa.
She set the tone early against Mesa in the 76-59 win by scoring the first points of the game with a three-pointer and tallying eight of Pima’s first nine points. She and fellow sophomore Haile Gleason each finished with 17 points. It was the first time in the storied rivalry with Pima and Mesa that the road team claimed a victory in the region finals. It was the 11th meeting in 12 years between the two programs for the regional title.
“From that point, I knew, in my head, I said, ‘We’re going to win this game,'” Perez said about making the first shot a few seconds into the game. “The biggest thing was our defense and not letting up.”
With the regional title, Pima was slated to play in the NJCAA Division II tournament at Port Huron, Mich., but that event was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While preparing for nationals, Perez mentioned she looked forward to playing in front of recruiters of four-year schools who would have been in the stands. Fortunately for Perez, Rocky Mountain College, an NAIA school at Billings, Mont., had seen enough of her style of play to offer her a scholarship.
BIG TIME!!! Congrats to former Aztecs women’s basketball player @PimaWBB and NJCAA All-American Shauna Bribiescas @smbrib12 on signing her LOI to Rocky Mountain College @RockyWBB in Billings, MT. The Battlin’ Bears play in the Frontier Conference. All the best. #PimaBasketball https://t.co/PxeFJDblRZ
Perez committed this week to RMC, where she will join former Pima All-American center Shauna Bribiescas and guard Izzy Spruit, another former Aztec standout who will be a senior next season. Bribiescas, who signed with Hawaii-Hilo after the 2018-19 season, has two years of eligibility remaining after not playing with Hilo. Spruit averaged 7.2 points a game last season for RMC.
“I am so glad I stuck it out,” said Perez, who will study psychology. “By sticking it out, I was able to continue playing under the best coaching staff, create lifelong friends and unforgettable memories, including going to nationals last year and making history this year by beating Mesa at Mesa for the region title.
“Another reason I am glad I stuck it out is I will now be continuing my career at Rocky Mountain College.”
From a rocky experience as a freshman to a basketball scholarship to continue her education at Rocky Mountain College — “AP is what ‘Aztec Tough’ means; we tell our players if you look like that, you’ll be in good shape,” Holthaus said.
FOLLOW @JAVIERJMORALES ON TWITTER!
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.