Four of the top-ranked teams in NJCAA basketball arrived at Pima College’s West Campus gymnasium about 4:30 Wednesday afternoon. Cochise College dressed in black. Pima College in white.
It wasn’t good vs. evil, it was good vs. good.
In attempt to relieve some stress, Cochise men’s coach Jerry Carrillo, one of the leading coaches in junior college basketball, hiked to the top of Tumamoc Hill and back.
“You might need 100 points to win tonight,” he said, prophetically.
His opponent, Pima Aztecs coach Brian Peabody, dressed in a business suit, kept busy by retrieving his team’s pregame snack. It was more than two hours before a potentially program-changing game for the Aztecs.
“Big one,” he said. “Yep. Big game.”
That was only half of it.
At 5:15, an Arizona State women’s basketball coach walked into the gymnasium. Three Arizona coaches, including head coach Adia Barnes, were in their seats at 5:16. It would be that close all night.
With 0.7 seconds remaining in the women’s game, Pima All-American point guard Sydni Stallworth hit a jump shot to force overtime with the ACCAC’s first-place Cochise Apaches. And then it got insanely tense.
Cochise led. Then Pima. Then Cochise. Flip. Flop. Back. Forth. The lead changed hands nine times in overtime alone.
Just as the Aztecs seemed to have pulled off a dazzling comeback, rallying from a 12-point fourth quarter deficit and leading 80-79, Cochise’s Deeha Battle beat the buzzer with driving layup.
The rival Pac-12 coaches, who have been recruiting Cochise’s 6-foot 4-inch center Sophia Elenga for months, stood with the crowd of about 1,000 and applauded both teams.
And then, as PCC’s gymnasium filled to near capacity, it was about to get better, if that’s possible.
The men’s and women’s basketball teams from Pima and Cochise have a combined record of 80-22, and all are ranked in the NJCAA Top 25. It is unlikely there has been a better night of basketball at the school’s old gym.
As Carrillo and Peabody waited for their late tip-off, Aztecs women’s coach Todd Holthaus stood with assistant coach Jim Rosborough in a downstairs corridor, reading the final statistics of their club’s agonizing loss.
“So many good things happened,” said Holthaus, who slapped the 8 x 11 piece of paper with his hand and said “but no matter how long I stare at these stats, nothing’s going to change.”
The Aztecs finished third in the NJCAA finals a year ago and opened the year ranked No. 1. They are now 13-5, third place, in the ACCAC, which is surely the nation’s top conference for men’s and women’s junior-college basketball.
What many people don’t know is that although Pima and Cochise are in the same conference, they are in a different league.
Cochise is Division I. It houses its players in on-campus dormitories and recruits nationally. Elenga, who is also being sought by 2016 Final Four power Washington, is from Nogent Sur Oise, France. She’s the real thing; on Wednesday she scored 16 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. The Apaches also have four players from California, two from Texas and another from Indiana.
The Division II Aztecs start four Tucsonans: Stallworth, from Palo Verde High; Cienega’s Denesia Smith, who has all-ACCAC credentials; Marana’s Moana Hala’ufia and Catalina Foothills’ Erin Peterson.
A month earlier in Douglas, the Apaches beat Holthaus’ team on their worst night of the season; they shot 2-for-20 from 3-point range and missed 16 of 32 foul shots. On Wednesday, Pima fought back; you could see why the Aztecs maintain D-II national championship hopes.
“There are no gimmes in this league,” said Rosborough, who was Arizona’s top assistant coach for 19 seasons under Lute Olson. “Oh, boy, it’s a grind. Tough, tough league.”
As Holthaus walked upstairs to greet his family, the bedlam began again.
Pima’s men’s team, 18-8, which is averaging an NJCAA-leading 103 points per game (Cochise isn’t far behind at 93) pushed the pace and seemed to score from everywhere. It was high entertainment.
Cienega grad Isaiah Murphy scored 26, a total matched by Salpointe Catholic alumnus Emilio Acedo. Pima accelerated, leading 87-80, and then closed it out as Empire High grad Deion James scored eight clinching points, giving him 18 for the game.
The Aztecs won 110-102. Nobody asked for a refund.
Wednesday’s doubleheader might’ve appeared to be some type of climax to a seriously difficult season, but the hard stuff is just beginning.
Peabody’s men’s team must play at No. 11 Phoenix College on Saturday. Holthaus’ women’s club still has to play Mesa College and Arizona Western, who are tied for second in the ACCAC.
“It kind of sucks that we lost,” said Denesia Smith, who scored a game-high 26 points Wednesday despite battling a hip injury. “But we’re OK. We’re good, too. I think we all realized that tonight.”