Thatcher avenges opening-season loss as Eagles claw back to down Bulldogs in rubber match

Photo By Stan Bonifacio: Trett Wiltbank goes up for two early in the game. Thatcher rebounded from being down early to oust the visiting Safford Bulldogs, 55-47.

By Jon Johnson

THATCHER – The combination of a stifling defense and long-bomb accuracy allowed the Thatcher Eagles (4-0 region, 12-5 overall) to down the Safford Bulldogs (0-3 conference, 4-10 overall) 55-47 on Friday. 

The win keeps Thatcher even with Pima for the top of the 2A East, however, since Pima lost Saturday to Scottsdale Christian, Thatcher moved ahead on a tie-breaker due to having a better conference record. The two teams will play Tuesday.

“Our defense was on in the beginning,” said Safford head coach Sheri Camarena. “We were shutting a lot down and we were getting steals. 

Video By Jon Johnson/Gila Herald: Cover Shot By Stan Bonifacio

Early on it was all Safford as the Bulldogs flexed their muscles in the paint and the Eagles had trouble finding the hoop. 

Jejdrique Chavez led the charge for Safford with a couple of early put backs. He was assisted by Trett Wiltbank, who hit a couple of shots in the paint to help Safford open the game on a 13-2 run. Chavez finished with a game-high 22 points.  

Photo By Stan Bonifacio: Michael Greer looks for an outlet. Greer finished with a team-high 17 points.

The long ball saved Thatcher from a disastrous first period as Michael Greer and T.J. Reed both hit from deep. However, Safford still led 15-8 after one period of play. 

Safford continued to build the lead early in the second period as Issac Camarena hit a 3 and followed that up with a mid-range jumper. He would finish with 15 points on the night. 

Chavez then scored on a hard drive to the hole to give the Bulldogs a 25-16 lead midway through the second period. However, that would be their last bucket of the half. 

Collin Thompson jump-started a 15-0 Thatcher run with 6 quick points from shots within two feet of the basket. As Thatcher’s defense locked down Safford with a questionable shot selection, the Eagles continued to rock the rim with a runner by Greer followed by a 3 pointer that gave Thatcher its first lead of the night, 27-25. A driving bucket by freshman Brandon Napier and a tip-in by Spencer Stephens ended the scoring to put Thatcher up 31-25 at the half.   

“They did phenomenal with not getting flustered, not getting nervous, or forcing anything,” Thatcher head coach Robby Martindell said. “They continued to move the ball and stay in our offense and those open shots began to start falling.”

Defense was big in the third period as well as Thatcher held Safford to just 7 points in the period. The crowd woke up as Tanner Palmer ran down Wiltbank from behind to block what appeared to be a breakaway layup after Wiltbank received a sweet lead pass from Mason Duros.

Photo By Stan Bonifacio: Michael Greer heads to the hoop for two.

The defense continued as Napier stepped in front for a steal and then scored in the paint on the ensuing possession.

“What made the difference was our guys finally started playing a little tougher defense,” Martindell said. “Defense leads to offense. Once they get stops, (the) crowd gets into it and that’s what helps the offense. The crowd helps the offense get going but defense gets the crowd going.”

In the third period, the big men went at it from deep as Thatcher’s Spencer Stevens hit two 3’s and Safford’s Camarena answered in between with a long ball of his own. Stevens finished with 16 points on the night.   

Chavez led a late charge with a personal 8-1 run against Thatcher after utilizing isolation plays to capitalize on his athleticism driving to the bucket, however, he didn’t have that third scorer that Thatcher had and the Eagles held on to win, 55-47. 

Greer led the way for the Eagles with 17 points and had Stevens (16) and Thompson (10) score in double digits while Napier contributed 7 as well. 

Safford head Coach Camarena said they would adjust their game plan to get more isolation plays for Chavez throughout the game as they did in the fourth period to score more but also get others involved as teams attempt to help out on defense.  

“We’ll get there,” Camarena said. “(We’ll) keep up the intensity and we’ll keep doing that. Thatcher played well tonight.”

Photo By Stan Bonifacio: Safford cheerleaders entertain the crowd.

Safford will next travel to Tucson to take on the Tanque Verde Hawks (1-0 conference, 6-8 overall) on Tuesday, Jan. 14. 

Thatcher will next head down the road in a battle for first place in the 2A East against Pima on Tuesday, Jan. 14.