Sahuaro beats Notre Dame Prep, to face nemesis Salpointe in 4A quarterfinals

Sahuaro was only ahead by four points against visiting Notre Dame Prep midway through the third quarter with four turnovers and five missed shots through those four minutes after halftime.

The most important stretch of the season was upon Sahuaro — prevail and keep the dream alive, facing nemesis Salpointe in the 4A state quarterfinals Saturday or crumble against the Saints and face an offseason of what could have been with an upset loss in the midst of 20-plus win season.

“We knew Notre Dame was going to be tough,” said Sahuaro coach Steve Botkin, in his 21st year coaching the program. “Obviously, Phoenix schools are always tough. When you get to this point, every team you face is going to be super good.”

Botkin tried to mix things up, switching from man-to-man to zone defense, and instructed his team to push the tempo more.

The result was a pivotal 15-2 run between the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth that propelled the Cougars to a 54-43 win over Notre Dame Prep.

Seventh-seeded Sahuaro (23-5) will play at No. 2 Salpointe (21-4) in the quarterfinals Saturday at 7 p.m. The Cougars lost twice to the Lancers during the regular season by scores of 64-37 and 70-31.

Sahuaro junior wing player Nelly Ponds is not afraid to battle inside (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

“I think we can beat Salpointe,” junior wing Nelly Ponds said. “We’ve played them two times already so we have film on them. We know how they run. If we played like we did tonight, then I think we can get the W.”

Ponds is one of Botkin’s Big Three along with junor guard AJ Bonapart and 5-foot-11 sophomore point guard Cassie Coolidge. Sahuaro has become perimeter oriented with those three players after going inside to post player Alyssa Brown (now at UNLV) for most of the previous three seasons.

Coolidge, Bonapart and Ponds play an aggressive style that does not limit them to passing around the perimeter. Most of their points come off drives to the baskets, midrange shots or offensive rebounds.

Cassie Coolidge is a 5-foot-11 sophomore point guard for Sahuaro (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

Their tenacity proved to be too much for Notre Dame Prep, which was 1 of 6 from the field with five turnovers during Sahuaro’s 15-2 run that turned a 30-26 lead with 5:27 left in the third quarter to a 45-28 margin with 6:25 remaining.

“For us tonight, our patience (and) defense was good,” said Coolidge, who had 18 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. “There are a few mistakes along the way but we’re going to get to it. We didn’t look past this game but we were talking about Salpointe and how a third time is a charm.”

In the 15-2 run, Coolidge, Bonapart and Ponds accounted for 12 of the points with each scoring four. Dinorah Lagarda-Pacheco also nailed a 3-pointer during that stretch, making her lone attempt of the game when Botkin needed it the most.

“In the third quarter, I thought we did a really nice job of getting up and down the court,” Botkin said. “Transition offense was really good. Super proud of this team.”

AJ Bonapart is a versatile junior guard for Sahuaro (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

Bonapart finished with 16 points, eight rebounds and four steals. Ponds had 13 points and four steals.

The telling stat is Sahuaro’s pressuring defense that generated 12 steals. The Cougars scored five points off three turnovers in consecutive possessions to mount their lead to 50-30 with 4:32 remaining.

Notre Dame Prep’s leading scorer, sophomore guard Ava Pautz, averaged 15.6 points per game before Wednesday. She was defended mostly by Bonapart and she finished with eight points on 1-of-9 shooting from the field.

“Every best player on the team I always guard them and I shut them down,” Bonapart said. “It is what I like to do — just play defense.”

Botkin is approaching 600 wins in his career at 590-187 in his 27th year (he coached six seasons at Rincon/University before taking over for Jim Scott at Sahuaro in 2001-02). Only four coaches have reached 600 wins in a career in Arizona.

“This team is just super fun,” Botkin said. “I was telling somebody the other day that this is some of the most fun I’ve ever had just because they just want to play. It’s super fun to coach a team that just wants to get after it every day.”

The key is to keep that “fun” outlook going into the matchup with Salpointe.

“A lot of it is mental,” Coolidge said. “We’re 0-2 against them, one at their place, one at our place … I’m really excited to play them. They’re a great team. I love playing against them. They’re tough.”


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. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District.

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