No. 4 Pueblo struggles to out-grind No. 2 Flagstaff in Girls 4A Title Game

(Andy Morales/AllSportsTucson)

PHOENIX — If Thursday night’s 4A Girls Basketball State Championship game between No. 4 Pueblo and No. 2 Flagstaff was a boxing match, it could have very well been one ending with a split decision result to determine the champion. Standing toe to toe all night, the Eagles and the Warriors continued to exchange haymakers until the final buzzer sounded to end the game. Both bruised and battered, the Eagles had done just enough to snatch a 68-65 victory.

While it was a bittersweet moment for the Warriors, coach Ismael Galindo couldn’t be more proud of the work this squad poured into the program to help Pueblo reach its second 4A State Final game in five years.

“I’m beyond proud of these girls and I tell them all the time,” Galindo said. “When it came down to the second half, they came out and played. We just ran out of time.”

Following the overtime semifinal victory against Mesquite on Tuesday, Galindo noted he was anticipating Flagstaff to be another incredibly physical match up. Galindo also stressed the importance of Wednesday’s lone day to rest and recover before the final bus ride back up to Phoenix for the big dance.

Unfortunately for the Warriors, the long ride paired with the nerves of playing on the big stage made it a struggle for them to settle in on the court.

“I think we just started out with nerves the first half,” Galindo said. “Careless turnovers, but other than that, once it came to the second half we took it to them. It was just every time we made a run, they hit a shot. It was climbing back from that hole that we dug.”

Initially, both teams struggled to find their rhythm on the court as they were fighting to establish dominance early. It wasn’t until towards the end of the first quarter when Flagstaff was able to start rolling to reach a 15-9 lead at the end of one.

With 7:10 left in the second quarter, senior Victoria Cazares drove right down the middle of the paint and sunk a floater to cut the lead to 15-13, but the Eagles wouldn’t stick around for long. Pueblo was forced to call a timeout with 5:29 left before half after a block from junior Unique Begishie set up Flagstaff for a three-pointer to extend the lead to 22-13.

Doing a great job of regrouping, Pueblo came back out to bring things within three yet again with 3:12 remaining after senior Myla Truitt was able to sink a tough corner shot like it was cake.

Just as Pueblo was creeping back up on Flagstaff, the Eagles soared away to a 34-27 lead going into halftime.

Knowing they had to get to work, Pueblo started chipping away at the lead to start the third quarter. Four minutes in, the Warriors were still trailing by five, but they were able to cut that five point lead down to one with two and a half minutes left in the third. With an opportunity to take the lead, the Warriors unfortunately failed to capitalize as junior Morningrain Honani‘s layup pushed Flagstaff back out to a 40-37 lead.

Flagstaff proceeded to call a timeout to talk things over and came back out to power through the remainder of the third quarter. At the end of three, Flagstaff had once again worked back out to a 49-43 lead.

Leading into the final quarter, the energy levels shot through the roof for both the players and the fans as the magnitude of the moment really started to sink in. With each shot, the crowd increasingly grew louder and louder, adding to the already wild atmosphere.

Pueblo really was able to capitalize off the surge of electricity into the building, with freshman America Cazares dropping an absolute dime from downtown to tie things at 52 with 5:16 remaining.

The tie was short-lived, though, as Flagstaff quickly answered to regain the lead. The final stretch of the game ended up being a shoot-out, with the Eagles ultimately winning the draw 68-65.

“Down the stretch, they had about two easy put backs off their offensive rebounds that just killed us, because it was a three-point game and those two possessions could have been the difference,” Galindo said.

While it was a tough loss for the Warriors, Coach Galindo anticipates it won’t be too long until Pueblo is back playing in another championship game, much like he had said previously following the Warriors’ 2018 runner-up finish.

“We didn’t win it, but we were a lot closer,” Galindo said, comparing this game to the one five years ago against Seton Catholic.

He continued, “I’m gonna say it again, we will be back.”

Leading the game in scoring was Victoria Cazares with 27 points, three rebounds, two assists and four steals. Her younger sister America was right behind her with 18 points, five rebounds, two assists, a block and two steals. Meanwhile for Flagstaff, freshman Bella Burcar had a phenomenal night, dropping a double-double with 19 points, 11 rebounds, three assists and two steals.

The conclusion of the season always stirs up bittersweet emotions, especially when it comes to saying goodbye to the seniors on the team. Pueblo’s senior class this year includes Victoria Cazares, Lariyah Jackson, Sendra Perez, Mia Rodriguez and Truitt.

Although he’s losing a handful of his strongest players, Galindo still has a solid set of returning contributors, highlighted by the freshman standout America Cazares. Galindo said their summer workouts start next week, and he’s already excited to get back to work with the group of returning girls to keep progressing towards their championship dreams.

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