Pueblo’s season brought basketball success back to Southside

Pueblo’s season was much more than one game. It was a crusade, a movement.

“We’re trying to bring the Southside back,” first-year coach Harry Whitaker Jr. said. “Welcome to Pueblo basketball.”

Pueblo’s 17-point second half lead Wednesday night did not hold up against Gilbert Mesquite in the 4A state playoff first round game and the Warriors lost 66-63 in a more livelier Fat Lever Gym than usual during COVID-19.

The school’s pep band entertained the crowd that filled the gym to 25 percent capacity.

In the end, after Pueblo’s furious attempt to make a 3-pointer to tie the game came up short, members of the pep band walked on the court by principal Frank Rosthenhausler for a fist bump.

Harry Whitaker coached Pueblo to a 13-3 record in his first season (Javier MOrales/AllSportsTucson.com)

Tears were not shed. Nobody looked down and out. The sky was still where it should be.

The mood was much more of resolve with the Warriors managing a successful season in the pandemic, rekindling a once-proud program on the city’s southside with state championship runs under Roland LaVetter and Barry O’Rourke.

“We played Warrior basketball and they ended jumping up with a lot of quick threes,” 6-foot-11 junior post player Zach Morgan said. “They fell for them. It goes like that some times. We just have to play better. We’re a young team so we’ve gotta play again next year.”

The loss to Mesquite was a difficult one. It could have brought about an emotional response of grief, with star sophomore guard Armari Carraway managing just two of his 16 points in the second half when Mesquite crept back.

Carraway stood for a moment near the Pueblo bench after the final buzzer and was pensive as the Mesquite players openly celebrated a few feet away. He untucked his jersey and walked toward the locker room keeping his head up.

The outcome spurred more of a determined reaction from Pueblo’s young team whose nucleus — Carraway, Morgan and junior guard Marcus Coleman — figures to return next season.

“As a coach, when you pick the right kids, you’re going to get good character, win or lose,” said Whitaker, a father figure whose background with Carraway was instrumental in the playmaker transferring to Pueblo this year from Fresno’s Washington Union High School

Pueblo ended its season with a 13-3 record, its best performance since former Arizona player Kelvin Eafon coached the Warriors to a 19-10 record in 2015-16 with Oakland guard Isaiah Attles, who went on to play at Alcorn State.

“We learned. We’ve just gotta keep going. We just have to get some more shots up in the gym. Pursue, get ready for next year,” said Carraway, one of the West Coast’s top Class of 2023 prospects.

Armari Carraway, Zach Morgan (1) and Marcus Coleman (10) are slated to return next season for Pueblo (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

Carraway, a quick 5-foot-10 and 140-pound talent, was dominant early scoring nine points in the first quarter before having 14 at halftime when Pueblo built a 39-32 lead.

Mesquite could not keep up with his quickness on the perimeter evidenced by fouling him twice while he was attempting a 3-pointer.

“He’s a tough player, a good player,” Mesquite coach Shawn Lynch said of Carraway. “We weren’t handling their ball screens and dribble handoffs the way we wanted to. We had to get over the top with him consistently.

“We were giving him too much room. We also had help side when they would refuse that screen and take it baseline and we did a better job of finding him. He’s a tough guard.”

Mesquite’s athletic senior guard Eric Lira, who had more size and experience than Carraway and the quickness to keep up with him, drew most of the defensive assignment against Carraway in the second half.

With Mesquite (14-2) focusing its defense on Carraway, Pueblo allowed its 17-point lead to slip away with ill-advised quick shots and turnovers.

Whitaker was heard yelling, “Slow down!” as he pointed to the scoreboard and reminded his players they should try to protect Pueblo’s narrow lead late in the game.

The Warriors also struggled from the free throw line making 4 of 10 in the second half, including three misses on the front end of one-and-one situations in the fourth quarter.

Mesquite guards Nate Calmese and Cohen Gonzales took advantage of Pueblo’s miscues by combining for 23 points with four 3-pointers in the second half. Each had four 3-pointers in the game. Gonzales, the son of Mesquite’s longtime girls basketball coach Candice Gonzales, finished with 23 points and Calmese had 20.

Mesquite, the No. 12 seed, advances to play at Flagstaff Coconino in a 4A quarterfinal game on Saturday at 7 p.m.

Pueblo countered in the second half with Morgan taking control inside scoring 14 of his team-high 19 points after halftime.

“It was a playoff game, I felt it, so I had to go out there and play,” said Morgan, a former quarterback in the Tucson Youth Football and Spirit Federation who in recent years has undergone a significant growth spurt.

Jacob Vega, one of Pueblo’s two senior starters, was also productive with 11 of his 13 points in the first half.

A 3-pointer by Calmese and a driving shot in the lane by Gonzales put Mesquite ahead 64-63 with 50 seconds left and Pueblo could not convert thereafter.

Pueblo’s last sequence included three attempts from 3-point range but the shots did not fall.

Whitaker, who coached some of his players previously as Pueblo’s freshman coach, motioned for the Warriors to come to the bench area after the buzzer sounded as if to indicate it’s time to move on.

In what could have been a disheartening loss, for allowing a large lead to slip away, Whitaker took the approach of having the experience strengthen his young team.

“I just want to thank my guys because it’s been tough with the whole COVID-19 thing going on,” Whitaker said. “They showed up. They demonstrated a lot of character by showing up. We even lost some loved ones, some relatives, to COVID-19.

“We still managed to get a No. 5 seed in the playoffs. I’m extremely blessed to be with these guys with many of them coming back. We’re going to enjoy this opportunity and let the Southside know we’re back. That’s all that matters win or lose.”


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.

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