MESA — Coming down to the final seconds of the game, the Tucson Badgers dropped a tough one on the road Wednesday against the Mesa Jackrabbits as their push towards the playoffs continues. For Tucson, the shots didn’t want to fall, but the Badgers were relentless in their attack all night long.
“We were prepared for them, honestly,” Tucson Badgers Coach Annette Gutierrez said. “We just didn’t come out in the beginning like we should have. We didn’t execute our game plan so we had to come from behind.”
On paper, it was a pretty evenly matched game. The Jackrabbits, who came into the game with a record of 7-2, were ranked ninth in the AIA’s most recent rankings. Tucson, with a record of 9-1 prior to the loss on Wednesday, is ranked at No. 11. Both teams are battle-tested, having faced off against some of the top competition from different states in recent tournament play.
For Tucson, it was exactly the kind of game they needed.
“We fell short on our shots,” Gutierrez said. “Mesa is a good team, and I think it’s a great game for both of us going down the stretch.”
The game got off to a fast start, with Mesa looking to push the tempo right out of the gate. It worked, as the Jackrabbits were able to jump out to an early 11-7 lead to close out the first quarter. It wasn’t without working for it, though, as Tucson’s defense included an enormous block from senior Skylar Begay to prevent a breakaway layup off a steal.
Mesa went on a run to start off the second quarter and continued to build upon it as time ticked away. Following a corner three from Mesa’s Matix Perkins, the Badgers called a timeout with 2:36 left before the half as they trailed 21-11. Coming back onto the court, it looked like the Badgers were about to flip the script and steal the momentum, but Mesa just clamped down harder to take a 23-14 lead going into the half.
Picking up right where they left off, Mesa started out the third quarter hot. After the Jackrabbits took a 31-18 lead with 4:41 left in the third, Tucson called another timeout in an effort to regroup. Exchanging buckets, Tucson was slowly starting to make its way out of the hole. At the end of the third quarter, Mesa still was leading 36-25.
It wasn’t until there was around 3:00 left to play that Tucson finally started knocking down some big shots. With a huge push, the Badgers were able to bring it within two with under a minute remaining. Unfortunately, a foul and a made free throw were enough to seal the deal, as the Badgers couldn’t get a three off in time to try to tie it.
“It’s unfortunate we had to wait to get that grit for the game, but I was really happy to see my girls come up and battle until the end,” Gutierrez said.
Begay led the Badgers in scoring with 12 points. Senior Tamia Clardy and Gabriella Sanchez both had nine each.
Gutierrez says not having Sanchez on the floor as much because of foul trouble caused some issues for them on the court.
“That hurt us, because she’s our inside rebounder,” Gutierrez said. “I think her presence on the floor demonstrates her leadership and her composure. She’s getting the crap beat out of her all the time and she just never loses her cool. She just pushes through, so I think she’s a great example of keeping your composure under pressure, especially when things may not be going your way.”
Tucson is preparing to close out the back half of the season with six games remaining in the final four weeks, per the AIA’s website.
Looking ahead at the remainder of the schedule, the Badgers will play Catalina Foothills at McKale Center on MLK Day before facing off against Rincon/University the following evening and Maricopa on Friday, both at home. The following week there’s no games scheduled for the Badgers before they return to action for the final week against Marana, Maricopa and Xavier College Prep.
“I think both teams needed this, so we just have the future to look forward to, especially with the battle that we gave tonight,” Gutierrez said.
Brittany Bowyer is a freelance journalist who started her career as an intern for a small sports website back in 2015. Since then, she’s obtained her master’s degree in Sports Journalism from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU and is in her fourth year of covering various levels of sports across a broad range of platforms in Arizona. You can follow her on twitter @bbowyer07