Pima Community College sports

Pima leads rival Mesa throughout, emerges with crucial ACCAC Region I, Division II win

Former Bisbee standout Gabby Lopez led Pima with 15 points in the victory over Mesa (Stephanie van Latum/Special to AllSportsTucson.com)

Pima’s women’s basketball team wanted to beat rival Mesa so much after losing twice to the Thunderbirds earlier this season on the road that some of the Aztec reserves jubilantly ran to midcourt in celebration when the last seconds ticked off.

Pima (19-6, 14-4 ACCAC) extended its winning streak to seven games with the 69-62 victory Wednesday night in front of a large crowd at the West Campus Aztec Gym.

The Aztecs are now tied with Mesa (19-5, 14-4) in the ACCAC Region I, Division II standings with five regular-season games remaining.

“They celebrated a little bit,” Pima coach Todd Holthaus said of his team’s celebration. “I would temper it a little bit because we may have to face them again (in the region playoffs) but the reality is, if it means that much to them, go ahead and celebrate and be ready to come back and work and stay focused on what we’ve got to get done.”

Celebrate, indeed.

When a rival beats the other, the win carries more significance. Add to that a victory late in the regular season — against an opponent that already beat you twice early in the season — and the emotions can understandably run high.

Most meaningful to Holthaus is three of his top scorers in the game were freshmen, all of them starters. He also played five freshmen off the bench.

“It was a big win for our confidence because we lost to them twice previously, both close games,” Holthaus said, referring to a 73-72 loss on Dec. 9 and 54-50 setback on Jan. 20, both at Mesa.

“With a group of freshmen, you never know what you’re going to get. Just to see them kind of mature through the process and come away with tonight’s win was big because it shows that we grew up a little bit.”

Former Sabino standout Amelie Buffill-Gutierrez, part of the Sabercats’ 3A state championship team as a freshman four years ago, is now starting for Pima as a freshman guard despite missing all of last year with the Sabercats because of a knee injury.

Buffill-Gutierrez, matched often against former San Diego State guard Jaida Brooks on Wednesday night, scored 10 points on 3-of-6 shooting from the field while making all four of her free-throw attempts.

“It’s been a long journey,” Buffill-Gutierrez said. “I’ve had to battle a lot of things mentally. It’s a pleasure to be here. Coach Todd is an amazing coach and he’s given me the opportunity to start. I just have to go in there and do my job.”

At this time last year, Gabby Lopez was concluding her storied career at the Class 2A school of Bisbee.

On Wednesday night, she led Pima with 15 points on 5-of-11 shooting from the field and a 5-of-6 performance at the free-throw line.

“Honestly, the biggest transition is having the motivation to keep going every day,” said Lopez, who scored more than 1,000 points in her Bisbee career. “In high school, your practice is easy. You don’t have practice every day. Here, we have to go hard every day and just push ourselves to get better.”

The increased work and demands includes coaching at Pima from longtime successful coaches in Southern Arizona, including Holthaus, Jim Rosborough, Pete Fajardo and Felicia Greenhouse.

That’s about as good as it gets at the junior college level anywhere.

Freshman point guard Rylei Waugh, a Division I-caliber guard out of Los Angeles, is benefitting from that coaching. She finished with 10 points, six rebounds and four assists against Mesa.

Sophomore forwards Dominique Acosta (13 points and 12 rebounds) and Jordan Joe (seven points, blocked shot and a steal) provided veteran leadership.

Pima never trailed and led by as many as 13 points in the game.

Keep in mind that Mesa entered with an 11-game winning streak.

Mesa rallied to cut the lead to 59-54 with 2:50 left after making two 3-pointers, but Lopez answered with a bank shot off the backboard.

The Thunderbirds, who shot 29.4 percent from the field and committed 16 turnovers, did not get closer thereafter.

Pima and Mesa have met 11 times out of the last 13 years in the ACCAC Region I Division II championship game.

Any game in this series feels like a playoff game.

Another loss to the Thunderbirds may have caused some doubt from Pima’s young players.

Instead, Holthaus’ team can look forward to resuming the schedule next Wednesday at home against Phoenix College with the opportunuty to increase its seven-game winning streak.

“The reality is (Mesa) got two out of three against us so we have to finish a game ahead of them (for homecourt advantage in the playoffs),” Holthaus said. “We’ll show up to the next game and see how it shakes out in the end.”


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 in 2016 and is presently a special education teacher at Sunnyside High School in the Sunnyside Unified School District.

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