By JASON WEIR
The no. 4 ranked Pima Community College women’s basketball team won the Region I Division II title game in convincing fashion on March 5.
The Aztecs, led by finals MVP sophomore Shalise Fernander, defeated the Mesa Community College Thunderbirds 78-54 in front of their fans.
The win earned PCC a trip to the NJCAA Division II national tournament and kept their season going.
The national tournament starts March 15. Pima will play Hagerstown Community College in the first round at 2 p.m. eastern time in Overland Park, Kan.
Pima earned the right to host this year’s tournament. PCC’s victory marks the seventh time in the last eight years that the host team has won the tournament.
Fans turned out to support their Aztecs and help cheer them to victory.
“This is the largest crowd I have seen in my four years at Pima,” said Raymond Suarez of PCC’s sports information office.
The Aztecs fell behind 4-0 to start the game, but launched a 19-6 run and led 19-10 at the end of the first quarter.
Mesa never got closer than seven and trailed 34-24 at halftime.
Pima used depth and athleticism to pressure Mesa all night.
Its defense caused 17 turnovers, blocked five shots and stole the ball eight times. PCC also controlled the glass, outrebounding Mesa 61-34.
Sophomore Taylor Blue and freshman Sydni Stallworth led all players with 10 rebounds apiece. Blue, Stallworth and Fernander each had six offensive boards.
Players and coaches echoed a common theme in explaining the key to victory.
“Defense. Defense for sure. Our offense settled in off of our defense,” Fernander said.
“Defense and communication between us,” Stallworth said.
“Defensive intensity and depth,” Pima head coach Todd Holthaus said. “Our speed wears them out.”
The Thunderbirds had just seven players in uniform, a weakness that played perfectly to Pima’s strengths.
“They had a couple of injuries this year that really depleted them,” Holthaus said. “We knew we were deep and we knew we were fast. They’ll hang with us for a little bit. Eventually, we will just hammer away at them.”
The most nerve wracking moment for Aztec fans came with 2:50 left in the third quarter, when Player of the Year Stallworth began limping.
“My calves were cramping,” Stallworth said. “They were both cramping at the same time.”
After Pima called timeout, sophomore Samirah Miller made sure the Thunderbirds did not take advantage. She scored Pima’s only points during Stallworth’s absence.
Stallworth was back on the floor to start the final quarter and was fine the rest of the game. Pima started the quarter with a 20-7 run, taking away any hope Mesa had.
Pima began post-season play March 1 by beating Scottsdale Community College for the second time in eight days. The final score was 78-50.
PCC came out focused and took control of the game from the start. The Aztecs held the Artichokes scoreless for the first seven minutes to take a 15-0 lead and were ahead 43-17 at halftime.
Pima started the second half with a 7-0 run and led by as many as 35 in the fourth.
Relentless defense led the way, with Pima forcing 22 Artichoke turnovers. The Aztecs also had 13 steals. Fernander’s double-double led Pima in both categories. She had 20 points and five of her 11 rebounds were at the offensive end.
Pima’s hard work and talent was acknowledged Feb. 24 in the yearly awards. Stallworth, Fernander, Blue and freshman Denesia Smith were named to the All-ACCAC Conference and All-Region I teams.
Stallworth was also named ACCAC Division II Player of the Year. Pima head coach Todd Holthaus was named ACCAC Coach of the Year.
“That is ‘cause they drew my name out of a hat,” Holthaus joked.
He was quick to give credit to his team. “I’ve had great teams before but this is the deepest, most athletic team I ever had,” he said.
The Aztecs closed out the regular season with a 69-53 win at Scottsdale Community College on Feb. 23. Pima ended the regular season with a 23-7 record, 17-5 in ACCAC.
For more details on PCC sport events and box scores, see pimaaztecs.com.