Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Champs! The Thatcher Eagles take the 58th annual EAC Boys Holiday Basketball Tournament 45-38 over Pima.
By Jon Johnson
THATCHER – There were eight teams at the 58th annual Eastern Arizona College Boys Basketball Tournament – well, actually, there were six teams and then there is Thatcher and Pima, which are simply on another level apart from everyone else locally.
Pima and Thatcher have dominated the tournament of late with Pima winning twice since 2015 and being the runner-up three times, while Thatcher has now won it three times in a row (the event was canceled in 2020) and has been a runner-up two times since 2015.
The championship game was billed to expectations as a capacity crowd at EAC’s Guitteau Gymnasium watched two heavyweights battle and bloody each other through four grueling quarters.
In the end, the No. 1 Thatcher Eagles (6-0) kept their unbeaten season alive with a defensive stand in the fourth quarter to prevail 45-38 and have their names go down in history as the 58th annual EAC Boys Basketball Tournament Champions.
“It was fun to be a part of I guess,” said Thatcher head coach Kyle Hull. “I know it means a lot to the kids – the ones who have grown up here and been through it – so, I’m just super happy for them. This is like the Gila Valley State is what they call it, so that’s the closest environment that you’ll see before the playoffs with the crowd and the energy here. It’s just a fun tournament to be a part of.”
The electric atmosphere radiated through the crowds across the court and players and it was a back-and-forth game from the start with the teams ending the first quarter knotted at 10-10. For No. 2 Pima, Seth Russell, and Garrett Curtis asserted themselves down low, while Bradley Curtis and Brandon Napier showed off Thatcher’s inside/outside capabilities in the first.
It was a perimeter battle in the second as Hudson Griffin long-balled for 3 twice and Pima answered with deep shots of their own by Leland Thompson and Pierce Ashby. T.J. Reed broke the distance-shot tie for Thatcher, and after a few Griffin free throws are included, the Eagles took a four-point 26-22 lead into halftime.
Pima came out determined in the third quarter and struck from deep by Coy Miller. By 4:11 left in the third, Pima was up 29-28. The Roughriders held the Eagles to just three field goals in the third (two of them by Bradley Curtis) and outscored them 13-6 to retake the lead at 35-32 at the end of the third.
However, Pima would score only 3 more points the rest of the game on a lone long ball by Coy Miller. The Roughriders shot just 31.1 percent for the game, and in the fourth had turnover after turnover multiple times down the stretch.
The teams were still tied at 35-35 with 6:25 left, and then Miller hit Pima’s last shot as they went scoreless the final 6 minutes-plus.
Conversely, Thatcher hit a couple of key buckets by Brandon Napier and Hudson Griffin, and then they hit 9-12 from the free-throw line in the fourth to seal the victory, 45-38.
“We figured if we just stayed true to our game it would work out the way we’ve been working,” Hull said.
Thatcher was led by its inside/outside duo of Hudson Griffin and Bradley Curtis, who both scored 15 points on the night. Griffin went 5-9 from the field (2-4, 3-point) and 3-4 from the line and was awarded as the Most Valuable Player of the tournament. Curtis finished 5-7 from the field and 4-4 from the charity stripe. Others who scored for Thatcher include T.J. Reed with 7; Brandon Napier with 6, and Tanner Palmer, and Cody Jones with 1 point each.
The accolades were not without injury for Griffin, who suffered a broken nose. After the award ceremony, his family advised he was going to seek additional medical treatment.
“It means a lot,” Griffin said. “Growing up watching it – I always wanted to be here and play and win, so it means a lot just winning.”
Pima was led by point guard Leland Thompson, who not only defended Napier all game but also finished with 12 points. In one of Thompson’s best overall games, he also didn’t escape without injury as an elbow to his eye gave both a laceration and hematoma.
Thompson was followed by Coy Miller with 10; Seth Russell with 6; Pierce Ashby with 5, Garrett Curtis with 4, and Grant Ashby with 1 point.
Thatcher will next play in Blue Ridge at the Timber Mesa White Mountain Classic on Dec. 28-30. Its first two games will be on Dec. 28 against the 2A Valley (Sanders) Pirates at 2 p.m. and the 5A Gila Ridge Hawks at 8 p.m.
“We’re looking forward to getting out of town and getting up there in the cool country and enjoy it with the group,” Hull said. “This is a fun group.”
Pima (2-0 conference, 10-3 overall) will get its chance at revenge in the first game of the new year as Thatcher will visit on Jan. 4, 2022, as their next opponent.
In other tournament results:
Third Place Game
No. 4 Saint David 53 No. 3 Morenci 47
Fifth Place Game
No. 5 Safford 36 No. 5 Duncan 32
Seventh Place Game
No. 7 Willcox 61 No. 8 Fort Thomas 46