LAVEEN — The No. 9 Ironwood Ridge Nighthawks are soaring on to the quarterfinals of the 5A girls state asketball playoffs after defeating the No. 8 Betty H. Fairfax Stampede on Tuesday 54-51. Coming down to the final seconds of the game, Ironwood Ridge was able to grind away to the finish with a huge defensive stop, making for an exciting ride back to Tucson.
“We’re taught in practice by our coach that defense is the most important thing,” freshman Sidney Anderson said. “You can’t win a game without defense.”
The gymnasium was packed with fans, bringing a different level of energy and excitement to the building as the postseason was finally here. This was win or go home basketball, and coming off a year where both squads were impacted by COVID-19 mitigations, to be in this moment once again brought an additional level of anticipation.
“We were ready for this environment,” Ironwood Ridge coach Daron Cross said. “We’ve been in this environment before, so the girls just kept their composure and they played the game like we needed to.”
Things got off to a quick start, with Fairfax jumping out to an early lead in the first quarter. However, Anderson wasted little time getting to work for Ironwood Ridge to help boost the squad to a 12-10 lead midway through.
“It’s mainly the fans,” Anderson said. “They get in my head and I’m like, ‘Okay, time to quiet them down.'”
“She’s only going to get better, first and foremost,” Cross said. “With time and coaching, she can only get better. She studies the game and she works on her game, so she’s constantly going to grow. She’s going to be a problem I think ext year or even her junior year. But her senior year, she’s gonna be outstanding.”
Anderson’s 3-pointer was able to generate a momentum change for Ironwood Ridge, shifting the energy out from under Fairfax to carry the Nighthawks. Freshman Molly Walter also drained a bucket from downtown to help stretch the lead at the end of the first to 19-15.
Fairfax was able to work its way back to tie things up at the start the second quarter, with freshman Mackenzie Buckner heating up for the Stampede. However, Walter was able to knock down a go-ahead 3-pointer with 5:42 left before the half, sparking an 8-0 run for the Nighthawks and forcing Fairfax to call a timeout with 4:32 remaining.
With 2:39 left before the half, a three from junior Amy Senkerik pushed the lead to 32-20. After a missed bucket by Fairfax, Senkerik was dribbling the ball at mid-court for over a minute attempting to run down the clock before the Stampede finally started pressing defensively. With 40 seconds remaining, Fairfax managed to put up not one, but two buckets to make it 32-24 at the half.
Coming back out of the half, Fairfax looked hot, opening things up with a couple of buckets to make things close. The Ironwood Ridge defense started picking things up midway through, and a steal by Senkerik allowed Anderson to get the bucket and stretch the lead to 41-32. Despite the best efforts by the Stampede, the Nighthawks were able to hold on to a 44-36 lead going into the fourth quarter.
The intensity dial on the court got cranked to max for the final eight minutes of the game, as the Stampede were looking to make another push at reclaiming the lead for the first time since the first quarter. Each time Fairfax looked to get closer, Ironwood Ridge had an answer. After the Stampede had brought it within three, senior Madeline Cesar hammered one home from behind the arc to make it 49-43 with 5:02 remaining to play.
After the Stampede were able to tie things up at 49, they were nearly able to take the lead when Buckner was able to get the takeaway from Senkerik. However, quick action by Anderson prevented Fairfax from getting far, as she slid in to get both the steal and the bucket, giving Ironwood Ridge the slight lead with 2:40 remaining.
“I’m fortunate enough to coach her and for her to be in this moment and excel and play with composure,” Cross said of Anderson’s performance on Tuesday.
Back-to-back charge calls against the Stampede put the ball back in the Nighthawks’ hands with less than a minute remaining. A foul put senior Sophia Munoz at the line for a one-and-one where she hit both of them to give Ironwood Ridge a 53-49 lead with 15.5 seconds left on the clock.
Buckner took the ball down and scored to cut away at the lead as Fairfax called another timeout trailing 53-51 with 7.7 seconds left on the clock. Anderson was fouled with four seconds remaining, where she hit the first free throw, but the second one missed and went out off bounds off the Nighthawks.
With just seconds remaining, it all came down to getting a defensive stop, and Munoz came in clutch. Tracking the ball perfectly, she was able to get the steal when Fairfax was inbounding the ball, securing the win and sending the Nighthawks to the quarterfinals.
“Sophia has been great for us all year,” Cross said. “She transferred in from Idaho. Came in and gelled with the girls right away, and she’s just been a force for us all year long.”
Munoz said when it came down to making the final play of the game, she was just listening to what her coaches were telling her to do and was focusing on doing her job.
“I’m just happy that I could do it with these girls, they’re great,” Munoz said.
As the buzzer went off, Coach Cross joined the girls out on the court in celebrating the win.
“We talk about playing for each other,” Cross said. “That’s the biggest thing. We truly are a family. These girls love each other. It’s amazing to see, and people say cohesiveness will get you far, so we’re just hoping that cohesiveness will get us where we want to go.”
Ironwood Ridge will start preparing to take on the top-ranked Flowing Wells Caballeros on Friday in the 5A Quarterfinals. While the game is still on the road, Coach Cross says he’s looking forward to getting to play only a few miles away.
For Anderson, she’s looking to focus on bringing the intensity.
“I feel like tonight I brought the intensity,” Anderson said. “In other games versus Flowing Wells, I kind of haven’t. I’ve just sneaked away from it. My goal is to go out and play my heart out.”
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