In this odd season impacted by COVID-19 in which Pima has reached the NJCAA Division II national tournament with a 3-3 record, Todd Holthaus is asking why not make it more unique by winning his first championship?
“In my head, I always knew if we were given the opportunity to play, we can do some good things,” Holthaus said.
The Aztecs, seeded No. 9, are in position to achieve that elusive national title starting Tuesday when they play a first round game against No. 8 Illinois Central College (18-3) at Catawba Valley Community College’s Tarlton Complex in Hickory, N.C.
Tipoff is at 6 p.m. Tucson time. The game will be streamed live on a pay-per-view basis.
Illinois Central of East Peoria, Ill., is also in the national tournament because of a peculiar set of events.
The Cougars lost 50-49 in their district finals to Parkland (Ill.) Community College and they were not at first included as an at-large team to the 16–team NJCAA national tournament field.
Morton College of Cicero, Ill., was to play Pima in the first round, but the school canceled its trip to Hickory because of COVID-19 protocols. Illinois Central was considered a first alternate in case any teams dropped, according to coach Karrie Redeker.
“We’re excited, but it’s been a bit of a whirlwind,” Redeker told the Peoria Journal-Star. “As low as we were on Saturday (after losing in the regional final), we’re as high now .. all we want is a chance.”
Holthaus has now qualified for seven NJCAA Division II national tournaments in his 14 years as the Aztecs’ coach, but last season and this one are unlike the rest.
The national tournament was canceled last year because of COVID-19.
The Aztecs were forced to wait more than four months to start this season because of the pandemic. Their first game was not until March 16, which limited the Aztecs to five regular-season games.
The NJCAA allowed Holthaus’ team to play in a district championship game in Dallas because all the other Division II programs in Arizona canceled their seasons.
Pima defeated Dallas College-Mountain View 79-51 on April 9 to qualify for the national tournament.
“If it was a normal season, I feel like we still would have qualified, either way,” said Pima sophomore forward Sierra Mich’l, who has signed with NAU. “We qualified last year, didn’t get a chance to go, so I feel like with or without a full season this year, we deserved to go no matter what, and I’m appreciative of the opportunity.”
The closest Holthaus came to a national title was a runner-up finish on March 19, 2011. The top-seeded Aztecs lost to No. 11 Monroe (N.Y.) 78-74 at, ironically, Illinois Central’s gym at East Peoria.
Deanna Daniels, who hails from the same high school in Las Vegas that produced Sam Thomas — Centennial, was a standout for that team who went on to Grand Canyon. Other top players included Nadi Carey of Canyon del Oro and Gaby Ayon of Rio Rico.
“It’s a good place for people to come,” Holthaus said of his program. “We’ve been consistent. If you come play at Pima, you’ll always have a chance to do some great things in the postseason.
“I’m proud but I’m not done yet. I still want to get the big one.”
Holthaus’ teams have also finished third nationally in 2008-09 and 2015-16 and fifth in 2009-10 and 2018-19.
What must take place for Pima to win it all?
— Holthaus needs clutch performances by the two NCAA Division I signees on his roster — Mich’l and guard Fama Thiam (New Mexico State). It is the first time since the 2009-10 team that included Tia Morrison (UNLV) and Flowing Wells grad Abyee Maracigan (Idaho State) that two Division I prospects are on the same team with the Aztecs.
Mich’l averages 14.2 points, 6.2 rebounds and an incredible 4.6 blocked shots a game.
Thiam is averaging 11.6 points. 5.0 assists and 2.0 steals per game.
Holthaus believes the talent of Mich’l and Thiam and their experience as sophomores can help offset Pima’s minimal amount of games played to this point because of the confidence and leadership qualities they exude.
Mich’l, 6-foot-1, is a relentless rebounder and defender who consistently gets in position to take high-percentage shots in the lane. Thiam is an athletic inside-outside player who can make things happen in transition off her steals and she is quick to the ball on rebounds and loose balls. She has good length at guard at 5-foot-11.
Thiam believes the talent on the roster means that she and Mich’l “really don’t have to do too much.”
“Everybody on this team contributes so much,” she said. “We’re just here to push. Everybody on this team can do everything. It’s fun because some games we can get in foul trouble and there’s somebody who can come in and pick it up.”
— Balance is important with scoring and rebounding.
Holthaus’ teams traditionally play well in transition and this team is no different averaging 81.2 points per game. Eight players average at least 5.4 points per game and each are capable of leading the team in scoring in any game.
Freshman guard Luisayde Chavez of Rio Rico is a pleasant surprise with how much she has contributed immediately averaging 10.8 points and 5.0 rebounds a game.
Fellow freshman guard Mackenzie Kinsel of Goodyear Desert Edge has provided a boost off the bench averaging 7.6 points and 3.0 rebounds per game.
Sophomore forward Nikya Orange, formerly of Tanque Verde and Cochise College, is averaging nearly a double-double a game at 9.6 points and 9.8 rebounds.
“It was very helpful to be able to scrimmage against ourselves; we are very talented on both sides of the floor,” Mich’l said of the numerous times Pima was forced to hold scrimmages while waiting to see if a season would take place.
“I’ve never been on a team where we could put the starting five on one team and then put the other side of the team (on the other). They would often beat us because we’re good all the way around. It really did help us.”
— Shooting from 3-point range and defense from beyond arc are areas in need of improvement.
Pima is shooting 29.8 percent from 3–point range while allowing opponents to make 40.6 percent from that distance.
The Aztecs improved against Dallas College-Mountain View in the district championship, limiting that team to 2-of-11 shooting from beyond the arc.
With the limited amount of games and Illinois Central playing in a different region, Holthaus wants Pima to strengthen its game and not be overly concerned preparing for the opponent.
“If it’s clicking, we can be really good,” Holthaus said of his team’s execution. “We’re really good inside. We have shooters on the outside. Our identity would be we can hit you from a lot of different angles and we can do it really quick.”
With only six games played, Holthaus can’t predict how his team will perform, but he knows they can execute the gameplan set forth by him and his assistants Jim Rosborough, Nalani Hernandez, Pete Fajardo and Tim Larsen.
“I told my wife, ‘We can go there and destroy people if we play that well, but we can go there and have a couple of clunkers just because we’re still figuring things out,'” Holthaus said. “I just want to look at it as I’m just so proud they get the opportunity.
“They’re a really good group. They’re fun to be around. I’m hoping we go there and do well, but at the same time, there won’t be regrets whatsoever.”
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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.