Gilbert — Tuesday night on the hardwood was one for the books for the Pueblo Warriors, who were able to upset top-ranked Mesquite to reach the 2023 4A Championships on Thursday. In dramatic fashion, Pueblo was able to pick up a 52-48 victory in overtime thanks largely in part to a strong start by the team to set the tone in the final four minutes.
“We started off with those two quick buckets and after that, I think that was it,” Coach Ismael Galindo said.
For Coach Galindo, the growth the program has made under his guidance is continuing to shine through on some of the biggest stages in high school basketball. Since taking over the program back in 2011, this is his team’s second State Championship appearance after making it to the 2018 4A Title game.
Galindo says the accomplishment doesn’t come as a surprise, as he’s believed his squad had what it took to reach the finals this year since before the start of the season. For a majority of others, though, Pueblo’s achievements on the court spanned beyond what they imagined possible.
“I told the girls before the season we have a team that can win state,” Galindo said. “We have five girls that can shoot, five girls that can dribble right and left and attack the basket… We have five that can play solid and a sixth that also can play. She’s not a shooter, but can contribute in rebounds, assists and great defense.”
Prior to the game, Galindo talked to his squad about playing their own game on Tuesday, which is what made their dream of winning against Mesquite a reality.
“Every team we’ve played against has outsized us and out rebounded us,” Galindo said. “So, my words to them were, ‘Let’s get the defensive rebounds, let’s not worry about the offensive rebounds. Let’s get what we get and be smart on defense.'”
Galindo noted because they lack size on the court, they need to attack the basket, and the girls listened and got the job done.
While Mesquite started off the game with the upper hand, Pueblo sent a message early on to the Wildcats to put them on alert. Senior Victoria Cazares was able to get off one last shot in traffic just as the clock expired to cut Mesquite’s lead to 11-8.
Opening up the second quarter, freshman America Cazares dropped a dime from downtown to tie the game at 11.
Mesquite was able to work back out to a small lead and maintain control of it for a majority of the second quarter, but Pueblo remained nipping at the heels of the Wildcats the entire time. Defensively, the Warriors played phenomenally and really started stepping things up in the second quarter, allowing America Cazares to make a three-point play. After getting the rebound, she also got the bucket and the whistle for the foul before going to the line to hit the shot and tie things at 24 with :33 seconds left until halftime.
While the Warrior defense kept pushing, Mesquite was able to fire off one final three before the half to retake the lead.
Coming back out of the half, it was a bit of a slow start for both teams as they worked to figure out what adjustments the other squad made in the locker rooms. Mesquite looked as if they might be able to break away from Pueblo midway through the third quarter, but Pueblo refocused and got things back on track.
With around 3:20 left in the third quarter, Victoria Cazares was able to cut to the basket to tie things at 32 as the battle between the two continued on.
Riding a surge of energy towards end of the third quarter, Mesquite was able to work to a 39-32 lead, but the Warriors once again had an answer right at the buzzer as they continued to pester the Wildcats. Senior Myla Truitt was able to fire off a beautiful three-point shot just as time expired to bring things back within four with eight minutes left to play, as Pueblo trailed 39-35.
The fourth quarter got off to a close start with the Wildcats looking to hold their four-point lead. However, the Warriors continued to remain calm on the court as time ticked away, ultimately playing out to their advantage. Senior Sandra Perez put up a layup for the Warriors to make it 41-39 before America Cazares sunk a three with 4:05 left to play to give Pueblo the lead for the first time.
The remainder of regulation was chippy between the two teams. At this point, Mesquite was starting to get visibly upset on the court and it was impacting their play, ultimately ending with both of them tied at 45.
Starting overtime, Pueblo kicked things into high-gear, bringing the energy Mesquite was seemingly lacking. In less than a minute, the Warriors were able to jump out to a five-point lead, led by a three from Victoria Cazares to set the tone at one of the most crucial moments of the game.
Things remained close as the two teams continued to duke it out on the court, but a jumper from America Cazares with less than a minute left in overtime gave Pueblo a 52-48 lead.
From there, it was lights-out for the Warriors. Continuing to play relentlessly on defense, Mesquite was unable to overcome the deficit despite their best efforts with fouling. As the clock struck zero, Pueblo began celebrating as the entire bench cleared and joined the girls on the court in celebration.
Knowing it was going to be a joyous trip back down Interstate 10, Galindo discussed how excited he is for the ride back home with the team.
“Oh my Lord, these girls are crazy,” Galindo said. “They’re probably going to be singing and yelling, and they don’t sing, they yell the words to the songs. Oh, and they’re excited about Chick-fil-a. They like the road trips because we get to stop and eat all the time, but yeah they’re gonna be jumpin’ and hopefully the bus driver doesn’t yell at them too much.”
The no. 4 Warriors will now face the no. 2 Flagstaff Eagles in the 4A State Championship game at Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Thursday, March 2. Flagstaff defeated the no. 3 Deer Valley Skyhawks 68-49 to advance to their second consecutive State Championships. Tipoff is set for 6:00, and tickets can be purchased online leading up to the event.
“We’ve gotta get some rest,” Coach Galindo said about his team prior to Thursday’s big game. “The girls are excited, we’re about to go to Chick-fil-a right now. We’re just going to do a light practice tomorrow and I guess we’ve got Flagstaff… I’m pretty sure they still play the same way that we play. Other than that, we’re going to look at a little bit of film and just play our game and see what happens.”
The Flagstaff Eagles travel notoriously well and are expected to pack the Madhouse on McDowell Thursday, which is why Galindo knows how important it is to get as many fans as possible up to the Valley for the game.
Galindo says he hopes Pueblo will attempt to organize or coordinate some type of student transportation to the Valley on Thursday in an effort to support the Warriors in their Championship quest.
“As you can see, we have a tremendous crowd,” Galindo said, referencing the large number of Pueblo fans who made the trip North to the Semifinal game. “Since I’ve been there, we’ve been probably the most consistently-winning team, so we do get more support.”