By Raymundo Frasquillo
THATCHER – The Robert Abalos-coached Safford Bulldogs outlasted the Thatcher Eagles, 72-48, in Guitteau Gymnasium on Dec. 16. The pairing was the title game of the 3-day 42nd Eastern Arizona Holiday Tourney and marked the fourth straight title for Safford.
Safford defeated eighth-seed Duncan, 60-10, in the first round and fifth-seed Pima, 71-53, in the semifinals. Thatcher reached the championship contest with wins of 47-22 over sixth-seed Morenci in the first round and 46-37 over Fort Thomas in the semifinals.
Fort Thomas defeated Pima, 47-37, for third place, fourth-seed Cliff ran away from Willcox, 58-34, for fifth place, and Morenci bested Duncan, 44-20, for seventh place.
Advancing in the consolation round were Cliff and Willcox, with wins of 52-8 over Duncan and 47-40 over Morenci, respectively.
The other first-round winners were Fort Thomas (54-37 over Willcox) and Pima (50-44 over Cliff).
“We have a big front court and our guards got them the ball,” Abalos said. “We stuck to our game plan.”
The result was high-percentage shot attempts and putbacks on rebounded missed shots.
Safford controlled the opening tip, reeled off three straight inside scores and a guard’s penetrating shot for an 8-0 advantage with 2:30 elapsed, and never trailed the entire game. Senior forwards, 6’2″ Madison Mullins and 6′ Aneesa Molina, accounted for the initial three baskets. Molina finished with a game-high 27 points and Mullins had 12. Junior three-year guard Deon Abalos put in the first two of her 16 points.
Thatcher scored its initial basket 20 seconds later, got within four, 9-13, over the next 2:02, but still trailed by eight, 13-21, heading into the second period.
Safford led by 15, 40-25, at halftime and by 11, 52-41, at the start of the final eight minutes.
Although the Eagles outscored the Bulldogs 16-12 in the third period, it was not enough. A 7-20 final period outing foiled the comeback. The closest Thatcher came in the second half was seven, 37-44, with 4:52 left in the third period, but no closer.
Safford totaled 30 field goals (one 3-pointer) plus 11-18 free throws compared to 22 field goals (one 3-pointer) plus 3-6 free throws by Thatcher.
Molina scored on 12 field goals plus 3-3 free throws, Abalos on seven field goals plus 2-4 free throws, and Mullins on six field goals. Sophomore Anna Montez added six points, freshman Mia Carter five, sophomore Jessica Bright-Schade four, and sophomore Brinley Kempton two.
For Thatcher, senior Corinne Bryce had 16 points on seven field goals plus 2-4 free throws, junior Kaitlynn Rasmussen 14 on seven field goals, and sophomore Taya Baldwin 10 on five field goals. Junior Brooklyn Angle added seven points and senior Alyson Wakefield one.
Third Place Game
The Apaches jumped out to a 6-0 advantage in the opening 2:17, but the Roughriders went on a 14-10 spree, scoring their last field goal with six seconds left, for a 2-point, 16-14, deficit heading into the second period.
However, a second period Fort Thomas defensive scheme held Pima scoreless while fast break opportunities for uncontested layups off turnovers abounded for the Apaches en route to a 10-0 outing and a 26-14 halftime advantage.
Pima opened the second half with a 5-0 run to come within seven, 19-26, and after an Apache basket went 4-0 for another 7-point deficit, 23-30, but could get no closer.
Fort Thomas led 39-27 heading into the final eight minutes and maintained a double-digit advantage throughout the period.
The Apaches totaled 21 field goals (three 3-pointers) plus 3-5 free throws compared to 17 field goals plus 3-5 free throws by Pima.
Senior Chesliauna Wilson tallied 15 points on six field goals (three 3-pointers). Junior Leigh Dona and senior Kaitlynn Hinton both added nine points, junior Normisha Moses and sophomore Vivianna Talgo six apiece, and junior Rebecca McCabe two.
For Pima, seniors Emily Warn contributed 14 points on six field goals plus 2-3 free throws and McCall Thygerson 11 on five field goals plus 1-1 free throw. Senior Jessica Sherwood added eight points, and both junior Alani Blair and senior Corinne Salyer two apiece.
Fifth Place Game
Willcox scored the initial two points 28 seconds into the game, but Cliff scored 11 unanswered points before the visiting Cowgirls added a second basket with 48 seconds left in the opening period.
The relentless defensive pressure and up-tempo pace by the white-clad Cowgirls’ led to a 13-4 advantage to start the second period and a 13-point, 28-15, halftime margin.
Willcox scored the second period’s first basket to pare the deficit to seven, 6-13, but did not add a second basket until Cliff had a 16-point, 22-6, lead.
The Land of Enchantment Cowgirls had an 11-10 third-period outing for a 39-25 advantage to start the final period. Continued pressure and a pace maintained by reserves coupled with a 19-9 effort yielded the large margin.
Cliff connected on 23 field goals (two 3-pointers) plus 12-21 free throws versus 14 field goals plus 8-12 free throws by Willcox.
Junior Kaitlyn Trotter tallied a game-high 23 points on 10 field goals (one 3-pointer) plus 2-2 free throws and senior K’Dayl Looney 12 on four field goals (one 3-pointer) plus 3-4 free throws. Senior Courtney Hardin and sophomore Kristen Hom both had six points, junior Kylene Killough four, freshman Kimberly Gutierrez three, and both junior Rebecca Allison and senior Marley Williams two apiece.
For Willcox, senior Danielle Barba totaled a team-high 19 points on six field goals plus 7-8 free throws. Sophomore Tapanga Alexander had five points, senior Zanati Garza four, and senior Rebecca Archuleta, freshman Sydney Klump, and sophomore Jordyn Rhinehart two apiece.
Seventh Place Game
Although Duncan scored the games’ initial two points by senior Keeley Wagley, it would be the Wildkats’ sole lead of the game. Morenci countered with 1-2 free throws by senior Alex Chee and took the lead for good on senior Heather Lee’s field goal with 1:54 elapsed in the game.
Duncan senior Payton Damron got the Wildkats within two, 4-6, with 3:53 left in the opening period and it would prove to be the closest Morenci allowed during the rest of the game. The Wildcats scored 18 unanswered points for a 24-4 advantage before Duncan scored again, with 3:36 left in the second period. Morenci ended the first half with a 7-1 effort to lead 31-7.
The Greenlee County showdown in Graham County had both teams scoring 13 second-half points, but the white-clad Morenci Wildcats outscored the gray-clad Duncan Wildkats by 24 points, 31-7, in the first half to finish seventh.
Morenci scored on 13 field goals (0ne 3-pointer) plus 17-29 free throws compared to seven field goals (one 3-pointer) plus 5-12 free throws by Duncan.
Chee notched 14 points on four field goals plus 6-8 free throws. Seniors Ashley Hernandez and Heather Lee both added seven points, sophomore Bridgid Silvester five, Desiree Babb four, freshmen Destiny Marquez and Hannah Pollock two each, and sophomore Reonna Alvarez plus seniors Destiny Apodaca and Janeene Lang one apiece.
For Duncan, Damron had eight points, freshman Melissa Claridge and junior Katelin Stergion four apiece, Wagley three, and sophomore Kaktys Garcia one.
Safford senior Madison Mullins along with Thatcher senior Corinne Bryce, junior Brooklynn Angle, and sophomore Taya Baldwin were selected to the all-tourney team.
Bulldogs senior Aneesa Molina and junior Deon Abalos were tabbed co-most valuable players, the third duo in meet history. DeDawn Lovett and Lisa Reed of Duncan as well as Shila Lines and Vicky DeMuth of Thatcher were so honored in 1995 and 1997, respectively.
The rest of the all-tourney team included Fort Thomas senior Kaitlynn Hinton and junior Normisha Moses, Pima seniors McCall Thygerson and Emily Warn, Cliff junior Kaitlynn Trotter, Willcox senior Danielle Barba, Morenci senior Ashley Hernandez, and Duncan senior Keeley Wagley.
Three-time selectee Abalos was also the 2015 M.V.P. as a freshman; and two-time selectees Angle, Barba, and Thygerson were also honored in 2016, 2016, and in 2015, respectively.
It was the top-seeded Bulldogs’ 24th tourney finale appearance, the 15th title, the fourth in a row, and the sixth win in 11 championship pairings with the Eagles. Safford won three straight from 1983-85 (8th-10th).
Thatcher is 12-9 in title games but 0-5 in its most recent five qualifiers. The teams have both participated in the each of the previous 41 meets with Safford posting an 89-35 overall record and Thatcher 86-39. The Bulldogs played only two games in the 1998 meet because the seventh-place game was not held.
Thatcher has the meet record for most consecutive title wins, seven from 1997 – 2003 (22nd-28th).
The top two seeds have met for the title in three of the most recent five years, second seed Cliff bested top seed Thatcher 40-30 in 2013 and second seed Safford downed top seed Thatcher 35-20 in 2014.
It was the fifth straight year with the same eight teams, Safford is 14-1, Thatcher 10-4, Cliff 9-6, Fort Thomas, and Morenci both 8-7, Pima 6-9, Duncan 4-11, and Willcox 1-14 in the same 5-year span.
Beginning as a 4-team, 2-day meet with two games each day during the nation’s 1976 bicentennial year, the ensuing 41 tourneys included eight teams with four games in three days. Morenci defeated Clifton 55-42 for the title after the Wildcats topped Thatcher 56-11 and the Trojans downed Safford 29-15 on the first day. Safford ended third with a 33-21 win over Thatcher.
Duncan is 54-69 and Willcox 50-74 during 41 tourneys, Pima 62-55 and Fort Thomas 55-62 during 39 tourneys, Morenci 56-57 during 38 tourneys, and Cliff 9-6 during five tourneys.
Eight others teams have also participated, Clifton (19-72) in 31 tourneys, Miami (3-12) in five tourneys, both Globe (5-1) and San Simon (1-5) in two tourneys, and Ajo (1-2), Eagar Round Valley (1-2), New Mexico Bayard Cobre (1-2), and Tucson Green Fields Country Day School (0-3) in one tourney apiece.
Monday, Dec. 18, marks the start of the 3-day boys 55th annual Eastern Arizona Holiday Tourney, with second-seed Thatcher meeting seventh-seed St. David at 1 p.m. and top-seed Pima facing eight-seed Willcox at 2:30 p.m. during the first session. The second session has third-seed Safford versus sixth-seed Duncan at 6:30 p.m. and fourth-seed Morenci with fifth-seed Fort Thomas at 8 p.m.
The final round is Wednesday, Dec. 20, with the seventh-place game at 1 p.m., third place at 2:30 p.m., fifth place at 6:30 p.m., and first place at 8 p.m.