Pima repeats as regional champs

Photo By Raymundo Frasquillo: The Pima Roughriders went undefeated at home for the second year in a row after beating the Morenci Wildcats 40-35 in the 2A East Regional Championship game Friday night. Pictured are Trey Thompson and Jordan Leonard diving for a loose ball. Both guards scored a game-high 15 points on the night.

Goes undefeated at home for the second year

By Jon Johnson


PIMA – It wasn’t easy, and at times it definitely wasn’t pretty, but the Pima Roughriders (14-0 region, 25-2 overall) fought through the adversity and eked out a 40-35 victory over the Morenci Wildcats (10-4 region, 16-11 overall) at the 2A East Regional Championship game Friday night.

“Coming in, I was concerned,” Pima head coach Cliff Thompson said. “They were playing really well right now and that zone Morenci runs with the big 6’10” boy in the middle, John – he does a really good job of protecting the rim and that allows the guards to be super aggressive and they are.”

Pima got one more play to fall than Morenci late in the fourth and instituted its delay offense with four minutes left in the game. The tactic took time off the clock and resulted in a score, working to perfection for the Roughriders.

Morenci came back with big 3’s from its 6’10” center, John Olmsted and its superstar guard, Jordan Leonard, but Pima hit its free throws down the stretch and a surprising defensive star in Hayden Ashby preserved the win.

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: John Olmsted throws down a dunk he alley-ooped to himself.

“It was tough,” Morenci head coach Patrick Hepper said. “They’re the number one team in the state for good reason. They’re battle tested in those situations. We’re trying to get to that point to know what it’s like to play in those really, really big games, and we’re moving in the right direction as a program.”

Leonard was big all night, scoring off steals and hitting key 3-pointers. He finished with a game-high 15 points for Morenci.      

The game was a defensive masterpiece by both teams as Morenci’s suffocating zone defense stifled Pima throughout the contest, and Pima’s man defense forced tough shots for the Wildcats. Both teams only scored one field goal and three free throws each in the second period as they were held to a season-low five points each in the timeframe.

Pima played without one of their top 3-point shooters, Frank Gutierrez, who had his appendix recently removed. While the Roughriders got some open looks from deep, only five fell for a team used to producing more.

The same story was told on Morenci’s side as they only made five from deep all game as well. Sharpshooter Dominik Waters, who had six 3-pointers the previous night against Thatcher, not only didn’t have any 3’s, he didn’t even get a shot off.

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Dawson Pruszynski gets the scoring started with this bucket.

Pima’s big man Dawson Pruszynski was practically immediately in foul trouble as he picked up two quick ones in the first period and was taken out with 5:23 to go in the first after scoring the opening points for the Roughriders. Pruszynski finished with just two field goals but hit five free throws in a row to end with 9 points on the night.

Pruszynski came back in the second period, but just as quickly picked up a foul fronting Olmsted. On the ensuing play, Olmsted went right at Pruszynski, who stifled him at the free throw line. Olmsted then stepped through and tossed an alley-oop pass with his left hand off the backboard, which he snagged in mid-air and dunked with authority.

After not having much luck busting Morenci’s zone defense, Thompson put his point guard, Trey Thompson, at the high-post to see if it would work. Trey split the defense down the middle and got one for two to go in over Olmsted as the teams headed into the locker room with Morenci up, 18-15.

Photo By Raymundo Frasquillo: Morenci fans react to a late 3-pointer by Jordan Leonard that cut the Wildcats’ deficit to 1 point, 35-34.

Thompson then turned to an unlikely source, reserve 6’2” forward Hayden Ashby, to take on the duty of defending Olmsted. Ashby harassed Olmsted the rest of the night, fronting him as Olmsted attempted to post up and putting a body on him for good box outs as they went for rebounds.

Ashby’s contribution won’t be reflected in the stat sheet (he had a solitary free throw at the end of the game to finish with 1 point) but his play was worthy of MVP consideration for the game. It could be argued that without the play of Ashby the Roughriders would have been upset at home.

One example of the intangibles that Ashby did besides his defense on Olmsted occurred in the opening minute of the third period as he gathered in a teammate’s blocked shot and found a wide open Mannny Rivera, who stuck the 3-pointer to tie the game at 18.

“Hayden hasn’t even got into the game (for) five or six varsity games this year, so to have him come in and step up and play the way he did with Dawson in foul trouble was awesome,” coach Thompson said. “I’m really proud of him.”

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: John Olmsted throws down a dunk in the third period over Jake Whitaker, left, and Hayden Ashby. Olmsted finished with 12 points.

One can only contain Olmsted for so long, however, and near the end of the third he gathered in an entry pass, took a single dribble and power slammed the ball to the delight of the Morenci fans in attendance. Olmsted finished the night with 12 points. 

Pima came right back, however, and Rivera’s bank-shot 3-pointer tied the game heading into the fourth period.

Trey Thompson turned it up a notch in the fourth, doing it on offense with jumpers and layups while taking a charge against Leonard on defense. Trey finished with a game-high 15 points for Pima.

Free throws made the difference down the stretch as Pruszynski was re-inserted with four fouls with 6:13 left to play. Pruszynski then made one of the plays of the game as he drove toward the bucket and just got the layup to go over the outstretched arms of Olmsted, who ended up slapping the backboard. Olmsted was called for a technical foul, and Pruszynski sunk it for a 3-point play.

With the lead and no shot clock, Pima instituted its delay offense to perfection and ended up running clock and getting a layup from Trey Thompson.

While Morenci fought back with 3’s from Olmsted and Leonard, Pruszynski calmly hit four straight free throws to keep the lead.

Pruszynski then fouled out bumping Olmsted behind the 3-point line with 27.3 seconds to play, but Olmsted only got one of his three foul shots to fall.

“We were playing together just like we wanted to and came out with all the right energy and everything,” Olmsted said. “I just couldn’t hit the free throws at the end to keep us in it.”

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Pima’s defense held at the end to preserve the victory.

A last-second defensive stand by Ashby and the Roughriders helped preserve the win, and he and Trey Thompson both hit a free throw to finish the scoring at 40-35.

“There’s nothing better than winning here at our home,” Ashby said. “We’re just getting ready for state, and we’re going to keep working hard.”

“This was just the first step,” Hepper said. “We had the sectional tournament, now we get ready to play (the) state tournament and hopefully we show up and bring the right attitude and the right effort. I think we’ll go as far as that will take us.”

The 2A State Tournament is held in the Prescott/Prescott Valley area Feb. 16-17 and Feb. 23-24.

“It helps because it was a playoff-type atmosphere,” coach Thompson said. “We played back-to-back nights just like we have to at state, so it’s a good dress rehearsal and hopefully we learned some things. I just like that we had a lot of adversity and we came through when we had to.”