Cochise College's Justina Prarie Chief goes to the bucket to score two of her 13 points in the Lady Apaches regional semifinal game with Arizona Western. The Lady Apaches won the game 58-49. Bruce Whetten/Douglas Dispatch
Throughout the regular season, no team in the state gave the Central Arizona College Vaqueras as much trouble as the Cochise College Apaches.
And for much of the way in Friday night’s NJCAA Region I Championship Game, the pattern held true. Cochise trailed the nation’s second-ranked team just 25-24 at the half, but in the final seven minutes, the Vaqueras were able to get some breathing room.
“We had a really great first half. We executed our game plan,” Cochise head coach Laura Hughes said. “In the second half, we played even with them, and then they got the jump on us with about seven minutes left. They hit big shots, and defensively, we could not get the stops when we needed them. Give credit to them, they are definitely the No. 2 team in the country. You can’t have letdowns against a team like that.”
Cochise was led in scoring by sophomores Ashley Mitchell and Johnishia Welles with 12 apiece. Jasmine Lemon added eight.
The first trip to a region title game in 28 years for the program was accomplished with a sophomore-heavy roster. Work begins immediately for Hughes trying to rebuild a team that can take down Central and reach the national tournament.
“We’re a veteran team and we lose a lot of sophomores,” Hughes said.
“In a couple of weeks, I hope they can look back and see what they’ve accomplished. We lose a lot, but that’s my job, to go out and recruit. My goal is to get to a national tournament.”
Last Wednesday the Lady Apaches beat Arizona Western 58-49 in Cochise Stronghold advancing to the championship game two nights later.
Tied 14-14 at the midway point of the first half Cochise battled its way to a 25-24 edge at the break.
Western led by five, 37-32, with 11 minutes remaining with back to back buckets by the Lady Apaches cut Western’s lead to one at the midway point of the second half.
Justina Prarie Chief then hit three three’s in a row giving Cochise a 50-45 lead.
Western would close the lead to two a couple of times but the Lady Apaches pulled away down the stretch taking a 10 point lead before winning by nine.
Ashley Mitchell led Cochise with 16 points while Prarie Chief followed and Johnishia Welles each followed with 13.
The Apaches were without sophomore guard Yvonte Neal, their first-team All-ACCAC selection, who was serving a one-game suspension after being ejected in the final minutes of the regular season finale against Pima. Add to that, the Apaches were without sophomore guard C.C. Rode, who missed her fourth straight game with a knee injury, and the extra pressure on point guard Jasmine Lemon was enormous. Lemon orchestrated a nearly flawless floor game, playing all 40 minutes along with Prairie Chief.
The Lady Apaches end the year 26-6.