There were no happy endings at the NJCAA basketball tournament this season.
The Pima College men’s basketball team, making its first appearance in the national tournament, got a rude welcome from Lincoln College (Illinois) in a 67-62 loss in their inaugural visit Wednesday to the Division II event.
But the stunner happened on the women’s side where the Central Arizona College Vaqueras were trying to get to their seventh straight Final Four appearance and a chance to repeat as national champions. Their 80-78 loss Thursday to Casper College (Wyoming) was a heart-breaker, and their follow-up loss to Trinity Valley (Texas), 77-67, in the consolation bracket sent them packing back to the Coolidge campus.
The Vaqueras should have been on track to get their sixth national championship this year. They’ve only lost two games in the past two seasons. And tournament play is nothing new; they’ve had 27 NJCAA appearances and won it all last year.
But, for Pima, it was a new experience.
The Aztecs played catch-up throughout their opening round match-up against Lincoln (27-6), the No. 3 team in the country last year. The Aztecs (17-16) came within two points early in the second half, but couldn’t get over the hump. It didn’t help that their leading scorer, Traveres Peterson, took a fall with six minutes left in a 67-62 game and was taken to the hospital for treatment.
A couple of local products did their best to get Pima to the next round. JaMier Morris from Cienega HS contributed a team-high 22 points and Jeremy Hardin from Tucson HS added 12 more.
The Vaqueras were also forced to play catch-up, thanks to a disastrous start to the second half when they missed 24 of their first 27 shots and let the Thunderbirds go on a 16-0 run. It put the Vaqueras in a deep hole, 22 points behind with just over eight minutes.
But CAC answered with a run of their own as a the team’s leading scorer, Olivia Major from Washington HS, heated up for 11 quick points and fueled a 20-8 run to narrow the gap to 10 points with about three minutes left to play. Then the gym erupted when Sancheon White actually put CAC ahead, 78-77, with 28 second left. But a Thunderbird basket and free throw seven seconds later sealed CAC’s fate.
In the following game, as the Vaqueras tried to win two in the elimination bracket to earn fifth place, they came out cold right from the start, missing 12 of their first 13 shots against Trinity Valley CC, five -time national champions. They picked their offense back up again, but then went cold in the second half, missing 13 of their last 16 shots. Major, who averages 21 points a game and is the fifth-best scorer in the nation, was held to just two points.
Pima’s coach, Karl Pieroway, questioned after his game whether it was his team’s play, or just that Lincoln College was that much better.
But CAC coach, Denise Cardenas, only had to check the score book after their opening loss. Although the Vaqueras won the battle on the boards (66-49), they shot just 32 percent for the game, were 10-for-28 behind the arc, and committed 21 turnovers.
That’s not the kind of stats that will bring home another national championship.
“It’s time to start working on next year,” Cardenas told a reporter after their second loss.
That means the Vaqueras will simply re-load for another run through the ACCAC.