It didn’t come easy, but the Eastern Arizona College women’s basketball team punched its ticket to the National Junior College Athletic Association Division I Women’s Basketball Championship.
The No. 14 Lady Gila Monsters earned their automatic bid to the national tournament with a 91-83 double-overtime victory Friday night over No. 25 Cochise College in the NJCAA Region 1 final at EAC’s Guitteau Gymnasium.
It was the third meeting this season between the Gila Monsters (29-1) and Apaches (27-5), who handed the EAC women their only loss, 52-48, in a game played Feb. 1 in Douglas.
EAC head coach Angelica de Paulo estimated she had “about five” heart attacks during this most recent contest, which was played before a packed house in Thatcher. Her team led for most of regulation, but couldn’t put any safe distance between themselves and the Apaches.
Certainly there were any number of opportunities for cardiac arrest over the course of the game, including Cochise erasing a five-point deficit with just more than two minutes left in regulation to send the game into overtime and the Apaches holding a five-point lead of their own with almost three of the first extra five minutes almost gone.
Ultimately, it was EAC’s sophomores who carried the day. Center Shalance Montoya was an offensive force in the post for the Monsters in the early going, scoring 10 points to help stake EAC to a 24-19 first-quarter lead.
It was apparent even in that first period the game’s outcome would hinge on which team could dictate tempo most successfully, with Cochise favoring a faster pace and an attacking defense, while EAC’s style was more deliberate, predicated on careful ball movement and positional play.
The distinction bore out in the final stats, EAC holding significant advantages in shooting percentage (47.4 percent versus 39.5 percent) and rebounds (42 versus 34) while Cochise held the edge in turnovers forced (17 versus nine), including 12 steals to EAC’s four.
The Gila Monsters outscored the Apaches in each of the first three quarters to hold a 56-49 advantage entering the fourth. That’s when Cochise turned up the gas, generating eight turnovers, including five steals, to erase EAC’s lead and tie the game at 68-68 to force overtime.
Sophomore guard Jessenia Lawson did most of the damage for the Apaches in the fourth quarter, collecting 10 points and four steals in the course of posting 24 points, five steals and six rebounds for the contest.
EAC sophomore guard Kassidy Dixon was a significant reason the Apaches weren’t able to snatch the game away in regulation. She turned on the jets to score half of her team’s 12 points in the quarter with aggressive drives to the hoop.
Sophomores Tiara Bolden and Skye Miller accounted for 10 of EAC’s 11 points in the first overtime, one where it began to look like the Gila Monsters’ magical season could be coming to an end (there are only eight at-large bids available for the NJCAA tournament). Through sheer force of will, Miller and Bolden pulled their team out of the five-point hole and back to even with Cochise, 79-79, at the end of the first OT.
The game remained a white-knuckler until there were about 30.1 seconds left in the second overtime. At that point, EAC gained a 85-81 edge and the game essentially became a free-throw-shooting contest, with Cochise putting EAC on the line in hopes they could turn misses with the clock stopped into easy transition buckets.
That’s not how it worked out, though. EAC was perfect from the line during the second OT, with Dixon sinking two of two attempts and freshman Vitoria Santana making four of four, and the Monsters were able to seal the win.
Miller, who scored 23 points, to go with six rebounds, five assists and two steals, was named the game’s Most Valuable Player. Montoya finished with 19 points and 10 boards; Bolden scored 18 with seven rebounds, and Dixon posted 14 points, six boards and four assists.
EAC coach de Paulo expressed pride in her sophomore leaders and her team in general.
“We work every single day,” she said. “We always say we are tougher together.”
The NJCAA Division I tournament will be held March 22-27 at Lubbock Christian University’s Rip Griffin Center in Lubbock, Texas.
The 12th-seeded Monsters will open tournament play March 22 against 21 seed North Dakota State College of Science. Game time is 6 p.m. MST (local time).
Cochise College also made the field as an at-large bid. The Apaches, seeded 23, will be matched against 10th-seeded Collin College. That game is set March 22 at 2 p.m. MST.