PIMA WOMEN ' S BASKETBALL

Greg Hansen: Reign continues, but outlook bright

CAC's amazing run stays alive despite Aztecs' gritty effort
2010-02-11T00:00:00Z Greg Hansen: Reign continues, but outlook bright Greg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
February 11, 2010 12:00 am  • 

Central Arizona once beat the Pima College women's basketball team so badly, 131-21, that it attracted national attention. Sports Illustrated referred to CAC coach Lin Laursen as "the Warrior Queen of Juco Hoops."

It came during the Aztecs' lamentable 1-21 season of 1989 and prompted new PCC coach Susie Pulido to tell SI, "my goal is to beat Lin Laursen, even if I have to be out there in a wheelchair."

Pulido left Pima without hopping a wheelchair, or upsetting the Vaqueras, but it didn't mean that Laursen let up much. In 2006, Central humiliated the Aztecs 112-19 and, mercifully for the rest of the ACCAC, she retired in 2008 as the John Wooden of her sport.

Those in the Arizona junior college circuit often referred to the petite Hall of Fame coach as "80 pounds of hell." How much hell? CAC was so dominant that Laursen went 606-32 against the ACCAC.

When Laursen retired, she handed an astonishing 106-game ACCAC winning streak to her top assistant and former Vaqueras all-star, Denise Cardenas. It was a flawless handoff. Cardenas' first CAC club won the 2009 national championship and went 30-0, building the conference streak to 128.

When the Vaqueras arrived at the Aztecs' gymnasium Wednesday afternoon, the streak was at 144, and Pima coach Todd Holthaus was uncertain when the Aztecs last beat Central, if ever.

"I tried to look it up," he said, "but I couldn't find it."

Holthaus and the 11th-ranked Aztecs were encouraged that Wednesday could finally be the fateful/unforgettable day when the Vaqueras were uncoupled from their 6 1/2-year streak. Pima had come within a final possession of winning on CAC's court last month in Coolidge, losing 76-73.

So if not now, when?

Pima finished third in the NJCAA finals (Division II) last year (28-6), the best season in school history, and returned seven significant players. Cardenas, meanwhile, lost all five starters from her Division I national champs and suited up nine freshmen Wednesday night.

Pima's intimate gym, which seats 860, was probably at 800, surely the largest women's crowd in school history. When the Aztecs shaved CAC's 71-62 lead to 73-72 with 10.7 seconds remaining, the gymnasium was electric.

Holthaus, on his feet, exhorted the crowd to stand and cheer. It did, but CAC's 6-foot-5-inch Ashley Ellis, who could probably start for any Pac-10 school, made two free throws for a 75-72 lead. Pima's NeNe Villalobos narrowly missed a three-point attempt at the buzzer; the Vaqueras' streak was safely at 145.

Somehow it felt like the scoreboard lied; the team that lost 75-72 handled itself like a winner.

"We wanted it so bad," said PCC All-America center Tia Morrison. "It kinda hurts, but this was Central."

Morrison's message seemed to be that if you can make CAC sweat, you've done something that almost no team in the ACCAC has done for the last 30 years.

"We played the best,"Holthaus said. "This bodes well for us in the future, against Division II teams."

The difference between Pima and Central is vast.

The Vaqueras recruit nationally and can lodge their scholarship players in nearby student housing. Cardenas' starting lineup included players from Texas, Indiana and New York. The top bench players are from California and Colorado.

Pima, by comparison, starts girls who played at Flowing Wells, Canyon del Oro, Sunnyside and Glendale Copper Canyon high schools.

Most of them must work part time to pay for their lodging and meals. The only out-of-state player, Californian Jessica Jones, is responsible for her own tuition.

That's why CAC is in Division I and Pima is in Division II. They are meshed in the 12-team ACCAC, playing common schedules, even though half are D-I's and half are D-II's.

At 13-4 (18-7 overall), Pima is the top D-II team in the league and seems to have a reasonable chance to contend for the national title next month. You can say the same for Central (16-0 in ACCAC, 22-2 overall). The Vaqueras are impressive, averaging 84 points a game (25 more than their opponents) while applying pressure nonstop.

"It's flattering to play in an atmosphere like this," said Cardenas, a Yuma Kofa grad who played collegiately at Missouri. "It was a big game for Pima, but it was not a Game of the Year, as I read. You can't have a Game of the Year unless there is a ring involved."

Holthaus' team provided unwitting motivation for Central. Because it is so rarely threatened inside the conference, Central viewed Pima's growth as a challenge to its territory and played with tenacity. After winning ACCAC games by such ridiculous scores of 107-37 and 109-62, Wednesday's game was as much a measuring stick for the Vaqueras as it was for the Aztecs.

Central celebrated as if the game meant much more than just another number in The Streak, which, if nothing else, was a small victory for the Aztecs.

Chronicle the last quarter-century of Southern Arizona sports with a compilation of the Star sports columnist's work.

 

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