After suffering a 23-point loss at Pueblo on Jan. 23, the Rio Rico Hawks boys basketball team looked dead in the water.
They were 4-9 overall and far down in the 4A Conference rankings. Their only hope left to qualify for the postseason was to win their final five games, all against Gila Region foes, clinch the regional title and earn an automatic bid to the 4A state tournament play-in round.
And that’s exactly what they did.
The Hawks capped off a remarkable turnaround on Tuesday by beating Pueblo 42-38 at home in their regular-season finale, avenging the Jan. 23 blowout loss in Tucson and winning the Gila Region crown.
With the win, Rio Rico jumped overnight from a No. 36 ranking in the 4A Conference to a No. 16 seed in the tournament play-in round. They’ll host No. 17 Flagstaff (12-7) starting at 7 p.m. on Friday.
Rio Rico and Pueblo entered Tuesday’s game in a virtual tie for the top Gila Region spot with identical 7-2 records in regional play. That meant the matchup was for “for all the marbles,” as RRHS senior Mario Alvarado put it.
“If we didn’t win, our season would have ended. But we’ve come back from the dead and just made the playoffs,” he said, attributing the team’s comeback to “keeping mental toughness.”
Fellow senior Sebastian Alvarez said it was the Hawks’ work ethic that helped them turn things around. He described the feeling of winning Tuesday’s showdown as “incredible.”
“We worked hard all season,” he said. “Things didn’t go as expected, but at the end of the season we came to play and we got the win.”
The game was tightly contested from the start, with senior forward Rene Arvizu hitting shots in the waning moments of the first, second and third quarters to turn deficits into one-point Hawk leads.
In the first quarter, Pueblo took a 10-9 advantage on an alley-oop dunk by Zach Morgan with 45 seconds left. But Arvizu answered 20 seconds later with a basket in the lane that gave Rio Rico a 11-10 lead after one period.
In the second quarter, Pueblo’s William Santos scored on a drive with eight seconds left to put the Warriors in front 17-15. But Arvizu drilled a three-pointer with a hand in his face to beat the halftime buzzer and the Hawks went to the locker room ahead 18-17.
The shot electrified the large Senior Night crowd, which heartily supported the home team throughout the game.
“You feel the pressure, but it feels great to have the support from the community,” Alvarez said of the environment.
Pueblo retook the lead to start the second half and held it throughout the third quarter. But after a Hawk steal and missed shot, Arvizu put in an offensive rebound just before time expired and the score was 27-26 in favor of the home team heading into the final eight minutes of play.
Rio Rico went ahead by five on a scoring drive by Habid Calderon with 4:10 left in the game, and then by six with 2:24 remaining when Sebastian Alvarez drove the lane and scored.
Pueblo began to foul, and the Hawks just needed to make their free throws to seal the win. That was easier said than done, however, as they went 7-for-14 from the charity stripe in the quarter, which allowed the Warriors to trim the lead to two points on two occasions in the final minute.
The Hawks came through when it mattered, however, and Cade Fanning hit two of two foul shots with 31 seconds remaining and Habid Calderon connected on two more with 9.3 seconds left to ice the victory.
Asked how the Hawks managed to beat Pueblo in the biggest game of the year, less than three weeks after losing to them by 23 points, Alvarado said: “Our defense, keeping our composure, and the fans – the home court – made a huge difference. We love everyone here.”
Coach Frank Arellano said: “Last time, we had 20 turnovers and we shot the ball terribly. This time we took care of the ball, we were patient on offense and got the good shots. Sometimes they went in, sometimes they didn’t. But we were just patient on offense.”
Arvizu led the Hawks with 13 points and seven rebounds. Alvarez and Calderon each added 10 points.
Senior players Arvizu, Alvarado, Alvarez, Fanning and Noe Nuñez were honored with their parents before the game, and then took the floor as the Hawks’ starting five.
After the win, Arellano said: “I feel great, especially for these seniors. To get here, we had to win five in a row, and that’s what we did and it makes it even more special.”