Cochise’s magic number is one and Mesa eliminated Arizona Western in the tantalizing season-long race for the all-important top seed of the upcoming NJCAA Region I Division I playoff.
Mesa (21-6, 17-3) recovered from Wednesday night’s disheartening last-second loss at Cochise (24-4, 18-2) by posting a narrow 65-64 win over Andre Almeida-less Western to remain one game behind Cochise, a 105-87 winner at Central Saturday afternoon.
While Arizona Western (22-5, 15-4) still clings to its fading hopes of overtaking Mesa for the No. 2 seed, Mesa will need to gain two games on Cochise as Cochise holds the tiebreaker by virtue of its season’s sweep over Mesa.
Mesa’s task is unlikely, but possible to obtain. It, too, holds the tiebreaker over Western after sweeping the season’s series.
The top seed is huge, as it carries with it two byes and the hosting of an automatic home game in the region’s title game. The winner of that game goes to nationals.
The second seed gets a bye and then a home game against the winner of the game between the third and fourth seeds.
Cochise travels to Arizona Western Tuesday night before closing with a home game against ACCAC Division II-leading Phoenix College (17-11, 10-10), which is still in the playoff hunt with four other teams.
Mesa closes with winnable road games against Yavapai (4-24, 4-16) and Pima (14-13, 9-11), although Pima could have its back to the wall Friday.
Western, which has listed Almeida as “day to day” after undergoing an appendectomy earlier in the week, finishes at Eastern Arizona (14-14, 7-13) and Eastern was eliminated from the playoff race after a 93-91 home loss to Chandler-Gilbert Saturday night.
Cochise got 25 points from Xavier Johnson-Blount, 21 from Jesus Delgado, 15 from Marcus Williams, 11 from Demetrius Thornton and 10 from Digs Moikobu in avenging an earlier loss to Central.
“It was a good win after an emotional win on Wednesday,” Cochise coach Jerry Carrillo said. “They’re taking care of business.”
Carrillo got home in time to hear the end of Western’s Jim Howell’s internet broadcast of the Mesa/Arizona Western game.
Western rallied from a 13-point, first-half deficit to take a 53-51 lead with four minutes, 31 seconds remaining.
Mesa’s John Balwigaire then got the hot hand, scoring 15 of his 17 points in the second half.
Mesa’s Eric Hunt paced Mesa with 18 points and hit a free throw to put Mesa up 65-60.
Western clawed back as Adonis Sousa nailed a 3 with 6.9 seconds to play and Western burned its final time out.
Mesa’s Stephen Rogers then missed two free throws with 5.2 seconds left, but Western was unable to get the ball into the front court for a final shot and Mesa had the win.
“The guy that really hurt us was Eric Hunt,” Western coach Kelly Green said. “He got all the tips off the glass…We would work so hard to get a stop and then we’d get one and we couldn’t come up with the ball.
“I thought our guys fought right down to the end. I was proud of our effort. We just fought so hard.”
Zac Downing paced Western with 18 points. Michael Craig scored 12 points and added nine rebounds.