Before each game, someone on the Pima College women's basketball bench opens a camera bag, carefully unfolds Bruce Fleck's black team pullover and lays it across the empty chair closest to center court.

When the team huddles for a pregame prayer, forward Tyahnna Higgs shouts, "This one's for you, Flecky!" or reminds the team that their former assistant coach is, somewhere, watching.

Saturday afternoon, though, the team paid tribute to Fleck - who, at 58, died in his sleep in April - in a way he'd appreciate.

The Aztecs trailed No. 9 Mesa by 12, twice, and rallied to force overtime before winning 77-70.

"We told ourselves we'd come back, because that's what Fleck would want," sophomore guard Paige Shirley said. "This was for Fleck."

The reigning national runner-up Aztecs (5-4, 4-1 ACCAC), who host LSU-Eunice tonight at 6:30, have a rallying point this season.

In heartbreak, they've found strength in each other.

"It's a devastating event," coach Todd Holthaus said. "It can either fracture us or bring us closer."

Holthaus worries about his players, and they worry for him.

Fleck coached under Holthaus for 12 years, at Flowing Wells High School and Pima. He was an unpaid assistant at Pima but still made daylong recruiting trips with a smile.

Fleck was always his deputy - the lighthearted answer to his scowl, the voice in his ear telling him he cannot, ever, play zone defense.

In the days after Fleck's death, before he could gather with his team, Holthaus refused to walk out on the court alone. Holthaus would climb the stairs at Pima's West Campus gym and stride the length of the sideline, dropping back down the stairs to his office beyond the far baseline.

"I still struggle with it daily," he said. "I think in time you learn to appreciate what there was and never try to replace it."

It's different, and strange.

"I do notice a little bit of a void," Higgs said. "When something's not right, it's because Fleck's not here."

Fleck, who retired from TUSD after 30 years, wouldn't want them to be sad.

The Aztecs honor his silly sense of humor with "What the Fleck?" memorial plastic wristbands, and tell stories about him rapping along to a Snoop Dogg song during the national championships.

The Aztecs want to return and win the finale in his honor. The past three years, Pima has finished third, fifth and second in Div. II.

"To be that close to one motivates us more to take that one step further," Shirley said. "With Fleck motivating us."

Pima's team barely resembles last season's 29-7 squad.

The Aztecs lost four starters - all but guard Naderra Carey - and seven players.

"Last year we were smaller and more fundamentally sound," Carey said. "This year we're very athletic and like to get out there and run."

Holthaus likes that his team can adjust to the competition.

Six-foot-five freshman A'jha Edwards, from Tombstone High School, leads the team with five double-doubles. Her 10.1 points per game tops the team, though 10 players average four or more points.

"Every time we play together, we grow," sophomore wing Briaunna Guthrie said. "I wouldn't say we're terrible, I wouldn't say we're fantastic. We have really good potential to go back to nationals."

Holthaus admitted to assembling a difficult schedule and being harsh in assessing his own team.

"We might not be good right now," he said. "It's taken me some time to put the right pieces in the right place."

After tonight's game, the Aztecs will have two more weeks before their next game.

They'll return to host a tournament - the Bruce Fleck Classic.

"The girls really appreciated who he was," Holthaus said. "And because of who he was, it makes our chemistry even better."