Raymundo Frasquillo Photo/Gila Herald: Pima’s Dawson Pruszynski shoots over the outstretched arms of Thatcher’s Spencer Stevens. Pruszynski got the shot but Thatcher got the win, 65-52.
By Jon Johnson
PIMA – The crowd inside the packed, standing-room-only gymnasium was deafening and an electric current swept through the stands as the final game of the regular season between the 2A East’s biggest rivals, Pima and Thatcher, definitely had a playoff feel. The best thing? We get to do it all again Thursday.
“We worked hard as a team like we’ve done all season and just came out with the win,” said Thatcher center Cole Motes.
The red-hot Thatcher Eagles (20-8 overall, 11-1 region) are unbeaten against 2A schools in 2019 with their only loss to 3A Tucson Pusch Ridge Lions (62-53) on Jan. 19. On Thursday, Jan. 31, the Eagles flew into the Pima Roughriders’ (14-10 overall, 8-4 region) stable and ended Pima’s five-game win streak by outlasting them, 65-52.
While Thatcher and Morenci have identical region and conference records with both at 11-1 with each beating the other, Morenci held onto the No. 1 Region spot with the tiebreaker of a 14-3 total record in seeding games compared to Thatcher’s 14-4 record. That means the regional tournament will take place in Morenci with the Wildcats as the No. 1 seed, Thatcher at No. 2 and Pima at No. 3, with Thatcher and Pima playing each other Thursday night.
While it was just a regular season game Jan. 31, one would have thought it was for the regional championship by the ambiance of the crowd in the packed gymnasium and how pumped the players were.
Drew Thompson started in place of Tim Salyer who was ineligible for the game and made the most of the opportunity right off the bat by hitting a layup and a 3-pointer off glass to give Pima an early 7-4 lead. Thompson finished with two 3-pointers and three regular field goals for 12 points on the night.
But Matt Palmer was all over the place for the Eagles, hitting layups and 3-pointers to score, playing tough defense and getting the ball to open teammates for assists. Palmer finished with a game-high 22 points and hit two of his three 3-pointers in the first half.
The thing about Thatcher is that they have a lot of scoring options and on any given night four different guys can be the lead Eagle. Center Cole Motes had a quiet 13 points on the night while having to defend Pima’s all-everything big man Dawson Pruszynski, who finished with a team-high 15 points on five regular field goals, a 3-pointer and by going 2-5 from the charity stripe.
Rulon White was big for the Eagles by stopping Pima runs by hitting timely shots and playing tough defense. White finished with 11 points, while Kason Crosby ended with 7 after hitting one of the biggest 3-pointers of the game.
The Eagles utilized fast-break scoring to build up a 35-21 lead with about 2:30 left in the first half, but Drew Thompson and Pruszynski led a comeback to drop it to a single-digit lead, 37-28 at the break.
In the third period, Alec Judd became unstoppable for a time and got to the rack time after time for tough layups. Judd finished with 11 points on four field goals and 3-5 from the free throw line.
Pima cut Thatcher’s lead to just four points late in the third and early in the fourth, but after Josh Whitaker hit on a drive to the bucket with about six minutes remaining in the game Pima would not score again.
“We’ve been working a lot on defensive pressure, and I think we really gave it to them,” said Thatcher guard Matt Palmer.
In the fourth, Judd and Pruszynski both had shots at the rim roll off and both times Thatcher quickly got the rebound out to the wings and down the court for fast-break points.
“We had our opportunities to cut into that lead and really give us a chance right at the end, but I think there was a lid on that bucket a few times for us,” Cliff Thompson said. “We couldn’t get some shots to fall (and) they hit a few and we’re here where we’re at.”
Palmer drove the lane and kicked it back out to Crosby for a 3-pointer, and Crosby then found Palmer in transition for a 3-pointer and that essentially killed any comeback attempt by Pima.
“We have our ups and downs, but we just try to do everything right like coach teaches us and just work as a team,” Motes said.
Cliff Thompson praised how his team played, especially those who normally are regulated to the bench.
“I’m extremely proud of my team,” he said. “We were a little short-handed, but guys stepped up and played well . . . I’m really happy overall. I think we had a good game plan. We could have maybe executed it a little bit better. Now we’ll just get ready for the region tournament and then for state.”
Video By Jon Johnson/Gila Herald
In other local prep action:
The No. 1-ranked 2A East Morenci Wildcats (17-7 overall, 11-1 region) beat the Benson Bobcats 62-37 on Thursday, Jan. 31, and finished the regular season by dispatching the Tombstone Yellow Jackets 65-42 on Friday, Feb. 1. Because the Wildcats are the No. 1 seed in the 2A East, they will host its regional tournament.
The No. 1-ranked 1A East Fort Thomas Apaches (21-7 overall, 8-1 region) were upset by the No. 3-ranked Arete Prep Chargers (17-11 overall, 6-3) in the 1A Regional Championship 56-51. It was Fort Thomas’ first loss of 2019.
The Apaches will finish up their regular season by traveling to Tucson to face The Gregory School Hawks on Tuesday, Feb. 5 and by hosting the Cibecue Wildcats, whom they just beat 65-51 in the regional tournament, on Thursday, Feb. 7.