The carrot is about to be eaten by Pima’s women’s and men’s basketball teams.
After spending a majority of their seasons waiting and waiting and waiting for an opportunity to play because of COVID-19, both programs will participate in their district tournaments in Dallas on Friday after playing no more than five games in their regular seasons.
“Without this opportunity, it would have been hard to keep them dialed in and focused; this has kind of been the carrot that we’ve just kept putting in front of them,” Holthaus said of his team playing in the district tournament. “Through all the adversity, we’ve told them to just keep focused on having this opportunity, whether we play five games or we play 15 games, as long as we have an opportunity to potentially go to nationals, that’s why we stay with it.
“To their credit, they’ve done an amazing job, and hopefully tomorrow night, they can reap the benefits.”
The Pima women, who are 2-3, will play at Mountain View College of Dallas at 4 p.m. Tucson time in the NJCAA Southwest District Championship. The winner advances to the NJCAA Division II National Tournament at Hickory, N.C., from April 20-24.
The Aztecs were deemed the Region I champs after the other Division II programs in Arizona cancelled their seasons because of COVID-19.
The men, coached by Brian Peabody, are also in Dallas for the NJCAA Division II Southwest District Tournament semifinals in a 6 p.m. game with Eastfield of Dallas. The Aztecs are trying to get to the NJCAA Division II National Tournament at Danville, Ill. That tournament runs from April 20-24.
The women’s and men’s games Friday will be streamed live at this link.
The Aztec men finished 3-1 with wins over Division I schools Eastern Arizona College and Cochise College. Similar to the women, the men automatically are the Region I, Division II champs because the other schools in Arizona at their level canceled their seasons.
Peabody said the Aztecs’ season of uncertainty has been “all over the board, I’m just being honest with you.”
Their first game was not until March 18 after the season was originally scheduled to start last November.
“I wake up every day, and it’s like, what cards are going to be dealt today?” Peabody said. “I just told myself a long time ago, when this whole thing started, I’m not going to get too high or too low, and whatever happens happens.
“We’ve just been trying to make the best out of everything that was dealt to us this year.”
Pima women in a “one-game deal” for district title
In other seasons, Pima had to win its Region 1 title in Arizona to advance to the national tournament. Due to colleges canceling their seasons, reducing region championships nationwide, Pima was shipped to Dallas to play Mountain View College (the Region 5 champs) in the district title game for the opportunity to play in the national tournament.
“We just have one day, it’s just a one-game deal,” said Holthaus, who mentioned the unfamiliarity with Mountain View is challenging but added, “Sometimes you can get paralysis by analysis by overthinking what they’re gonna do. The reality is, if we do what we know we’re capable of, we’ll be okay.”
— Pima Women’s Basketball (@PimaWBB) April 8, 2021
Holthaus has four players who were selected by Division I coaches in Arizona as All-ACCAC selections although Pima was the lone Division II program that played this season in a very limited amount of games.
- Sophomore forward Sierra Mich’l (bound for NAU) was was named first-team All-ACCAC and All-Region I, Division II. She averaged 14.2 points, 6.2 rebounds, 4.6 blocks and 1.0 steals in the five games. She also made 82.5 percent of her shots from the free-throw line.
- Sophomore guard Fama Thiam (a New Mexico State signee) was also selected first-team All-ACCAC and All-Region I, Division II. She averaged 11.6 points, 4.8 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 2.0 steals per game.
- Sophomore forward Nikya Orange, a former Tanque Verde High School standout who is returning to play at Pima next seasons, was a third-team All-ACCAC and All-Region I, Division II selection. She averaged 9.6 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.6 assists a game and shot 52.8 percent from the field.
- Freshman guard Luisayde Chavez, a Rio Rico graduate, was selected third-team All-ACCAC and All-Region I, Division II. As a reserve, she averaged 10.8 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 2.0 steals and shot 50 percent from 3-point range.
“I didn’t really expect them to get these honors just because we had played such a limited number of games,” Holthaus said. “It’s to their credit, and I’m very thankful for the other coaches that are in the conference that they gave the kids recognition.
“That made it nice for our kids because sometimes those awards are important when it comes to potential All-Americans and stuff like that you need. You need conference accolades and region accolades to kind of bolster your résumé, so to speak.”
Pima has waited 13 months for a chance to play in the national tournament after qualifying last March only for COVID-19 to ruin that plan.
“The freshmen last year who are sophomores now brought confidence to our team last year that was pivotal,” Holthaus said. “Today we had probably the best practice we’ve had all year, and a lot of it was they were just dialed in and they know what’s at stake and they know what to do.
“The freshmen have just kind of followed along. It was a good energy and a good vibe. Hopefully tomorrow night, it turns out that way.”
Men producing the “Pima Way”
Peabody has six players averaging at least 12 points a game in their abbreviated regular season.
They are forward Jalen Johnson (18.3 points a game), guard Marcel Dean (13.3), guard Chris Lee (13.0), guard Joe Heath (12.3), wing Daniel Moody (12.0) and guard Pierce Sterling (12.0).
Dean is formerly of Cholla and Moody of Walden Grove.
Dean scored a game-high 40 points on 14-for-22 shooting from the field, including 8 for 16 from 3-point range in the Aztecs’ 103-100 overtime loss at Eastern Arizona on March 27.
Johnson is originally from Chicago. He is a 6-foot-8 freshman prospect from Scottsdale Bella Vista Prep.
“We’ve got six guys who can lead us in scoring on any given night, which is good. That’s the ‘Pima Way’ for us,” Peabody said. “When we got to the national championship game (in 2018), I had eight guys that were scoring in double figures, so we didn’t know who was going to lead us in scoring.
“That’s kind of similar now. They’ve bought into sharing the ball, we’re averaging 101 points a game and we’re leading the country in assists. They’re playing the ‘Pima Way,’ which is really cool.”
Also really cool is how Pima’s players stuck it out with its roster intact throughout the uncertainty of playing this season. Peabody went so far as to warn his players in November that they may never play a game this season. The Aztecs were not beset by defections.
“I’m just really proud of my guys because it was literally day to day — ‘We’re playing tomorrow. No, we’re not playing tomorrow. No, we’re just kidding,'” Peabody said. “Just trying to keep their interest level high this entire time has been really tough.
“They stuck through it. The other side of it is they could be at Maricopa (County colleges) and their whole season would be canceled. I told him them, ‘At least you’re in a gym doing what you love to do, so just stay positive and hopefully the Basketball Gods will take care of us.'”
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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.