By Jon Johnson
PIMA – The Pima Roughriders (2-0 conference, 3-0 overall) overcame a firestorm of a first half to pull away late Tuesday night and gave the San Tan Charter Roadrunners (1-1 conference, 2-1 overall) their first loss of the season, 65-44.
Pima utilized a lockdown defensive third quarter to increase its lead from 5 points to 15 points by the start of the fourth.
“In the first half, we turned the ball over too much and that’s why they stayed in the game,” said Pima head coach Cliff Thompson. “In the third quarter, we quit turning it over and we converted those points and so that’s why we were able to get some separation. I just wish we would have taken a little better care of the ball in the fourth quarter.”
Seth Russell was Mr. Consistent for the Roughriders all game and pounded the paint with authority. Russell helped keep the Roughriders close in the first half with 10 points and pull away in the second with another 13 for a game-high 23. Russell also had 12 rebounds (8 offensive) for a double-double, shot 58 percent from the field, and had 4 steals.
“I thought Seth did a really good job tonight,” Cliff Thompson said. “He hasn’t felt well the last couple of days and he came out and played well for us. So, I think he played well, (and) I think Grant played well also.”
The defense was king in the first quarter, as both teams started out very aggressive. More than two minutes passed until the ice was broken by a free throw by San Tan’s Marquess Dupris.
Coy Miller answered with a 3-pointer for Pima, and the back-and-forth lead changes in the first began. San Tan came right back with a 3-pointer of its own by Kyle Bonner, and the teams would exchange the lead 10 times in the quarter.
After a 3-point, and-one play by Grant Ashby – who finished with 14 points on the night – and a sweet post move by Russell, the Roughriders were up 11-8. Grant Ashby shot 60 percent on the night and finished with 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocks.
However, the San Tan Roadrunners closed the gap in the waning seconds of the quarter with a couple of free throws by Beau Burns with 23.7 seconds left. Lewis Tauscher then got the steal and the Roadrunners hit a layup just before the buzzer to lead Pima after one, 12-11.
The teams continued to go back-and-forth in the second, with San Tan taking an early 18-15 lead behind 3-pointers by Dupris and Bonner.
That’s when Pima’s imposing frontcourt put it into high gear. The Ashby twins, Pierce and Grant, hit on consecutive buckets to take back the lead and Russell followed with a layup. Grant then hit on a putback and Garrett Curtis swished two free-throw to put Pima up 25-18.
The Roughriders then pretty much kept that same scoring margin and took a 30-24 lead into halftime.
Last year, Pima was a big third-quarter team. So far this year, that hasn’t been necessary or perhaps noticeable due to large leads at halftime. On Tuesday, it was noticeable.
The Roughriders came out in the second half and held the Roadrunners to just two made field goals in the quarter to take a commanding lead. Leland Thompson smothered point guard Jaleel Moore on the perimeter, holding him to just 5 points.
“Leland did a good job their point guard,” Cliff Thompson said. “We switched him on him and we pretty much had to play Leland the whole game just to kind of neutralize their point (guard). Overall it was good team defense and not turning the ball over.”
Pierce Ashby went toe-to-toe with freshman high-flyer Jair Benjamin and blocked him multiple times and forced additional turnovers. Pierce finished with 4 blocks on the night, one steal, and 5 recoveries while holding Benjamin to just a single 3-point bucket. Benjamin may only be a 6’3” freshman, but he is extremely athletic and will turn some heads this year and certainly in the years to follow.
While the Roughriders’ defense was locking it down, the big frontcourt and backcourt players for Pima began wearing San Tan down and Russell and Grant Ashby took advantage down low. Pierce Ashby then stepped back for a 3-pointer and the rout was on as Pima took a 46-31 lead at the end of the third quarter after an easy 2-points by Russell on an inbounds play.
Things got a little testy in the fourth quarter with the game firmly in hand. A number of technical fouls were called, including one against Pima, and San Tan’s Kenny Sippel was ejected late in the fourth quarter after a hard foul. There was a little bit of extracurricular activity and it wasn’t clear if the ejection was due to some pushing or talking after the foul.
Nonetheless, Pima cruised through the fourth to pick up its third victory and had San Tan Charter its first loss of the season, 65-44.
Other players who scored for Pima not previously mentioned include Coy Miller with 14, followed by Garrett Curtis and Pierce Ashby with 6 points each, and Leland Thompson with 2.
Beau Burns and Logan Johnstad led San Tan Charter with 8 points each, followed by Marquis Dupris, Kyle Bonner, and Lewis Tauscher with 6 points each; Jaleel Moore with 5; Jair Benjamin with 3; and Kenny Sippel with 2.
Pima will next play in the Pepsi Holiday Tournament hosted by Flagstaff High School on Dec. 9 – 11. Pima’s first two games of the tournament will be against 4A Southwest Paradise Honors (1-2 conference, 5-2 overall) on Dec. 9 at and then 4A Grand Canyon Mingus Union (1-4 conference, 2-7 overall) on Dec 10 at 8:30 a.m.
Paradise Honors is the 4A State Runners-up from last year and have already scored 100 or more points in two games this year.
“They’re going to be a good test for us,” Cliff Thompson said. “We’ll go in and do the best we can and we’ll see where we’re at.”
In other local prep basketball action:
In 3A, the Thatcher Eagles (2-0) defeated the Safford Bulldogs (1-1 conference, 1-2 overall), 62-28.
Thatcher will next host the 3A North Window Rock Fighting Scouts (0-1 conference, 2-1 overall) on Thursday, Dec. 16, starting at 5:30 p.m.
Safford will next play in the Round Valley Roundball Shootout Tournament hosted by Round Valley on Dec. 9 – 11. Safford’s first three games include versus the 2A South San Carlos Braves (0-1 conference, 4-2 overall) on Dec. 9 at 12 p.m.; versus the 2A North Round Valley Elks (0-1 conference, 0-2 overall) on Dec. 9 at 7:30 p.m.; and versus the 1A East Leading Edge Academy Spartans on Dec. 10 at 10:30 a.m.
In 1A, the Fort Thomas Apaches (1-1 conference, 1-3 overall) lost to the San Carlos Braves, 45-55.
Fort Thomas will next play in the Round Valley Roundball Shootout Tournament hosted by Round Valley on Dec. 9 – 11. Fort Thomas’ first three games include versus the 3A East Show Low Cougars on Dec. 9 at 3 p.m.; versus the 3A North Alchesay Falcons on Dec. 9 at 6 p.m.; and versus the 3A East Blue Ridge Yellowjackets on Dec. 10 at 12 p.m.