Third time is charm for Mesa CC, new Region I hoops champ

Some of the best college basketball in Arizona can often be found in junior college gyms.  And this year was no exception.

Cochise College had beaten Mesa Community College twice this season – by a combined total of four points!  Last night they met for the third time, but this time with the Region I Championship on the line.

Mesa (25-6), which hadn’t won a region title since 1998, had to come back from an early 15-point deficit in a hostile, noisy Cochise gym in Douglas.  The Thunderbirds narrowed the gap to 33-27 by halftime, and then pulled away to a 72-69 win to send them next week to Salt Lake City for a first-round game in the NJCAA National Tournament against the College of Eastern Utah, the Region 18 champion.

But there is still more to the story of last night’s championship game.  For Cochise, it was another season-ending heartbreak.  Last year, the Apaches ended their season with a 74-50 loss to rival, Arizona Western College, in the championship game, losing by 24 points.

This year, the Apaches returned a pair of starting guards, Jamiko Verner and Marcus Williams, and two forwards who played extensive minutes last year, Ray Marshall and Brandon MacLellan.  And then they added some talented incoming freshmen and some NCAA D-I transfers.

They were on a mission to avenge last year’s title loss.  They had closed out the season by scoring 85 points in an important win against a very good Phoenix College team, and felt they were primed for a play-off run.

But in the end, three points separated them from their final goal – which probably hurt even more than last year’s blow-out in the title game.

And Mesa CC even spotted them a player.  The Thunderbirds’ point guard, Chubby Henderson, watched the game from the bench as he nursed a high ankle sprain he suffered in the semi-finals in a wild game against last year’s region champs, Arizona Western.  The 71-65 win saw the T-Birds go to the free throw line 29 times (and convert 23 of those), and the lead changed hands nine times in the second half alone!

John Balwigaire took over for Henderson in the championship game and scored 15 points, pulled down six rebounds, dished out five assists, and had three steals.  That’s called stepping up big.

Stephen Rogers added 24 points and 12 rebounds to earn the tournament MVP trophy.  Rogers is this season’s conference Player of the Year and head coach Sam Ballard, who is 44-14 in his two years at the helm, is the Coach of the Year.

And that’s called stacking the deck.