After trailing 32-30 at halftime of Thursday’s state tournament play-in game, the Rio Rico Hawks girls basketball team took control of the second half and beat the Palo Verde Titans 58-51 at RRHS to advance to the Round of 16.

What was the secret to the Hawks’ second-half success?

“I feel like defense helped us win,” said senior forward Nicolette Pesqueira.

“Just playing defense,” added senior guard Luisayde Chavez.

“Defensively, we did an awesome job,” said coach Billy Hix.

Indeed, Rio Rico held Palo Verde to just five points in the third quarter and 11 in the fourth. That added up to 16 in the second half – exactly half what the Hawks gave up in the first 16 minutes.

“The first half, 32 points, that’s a lot of points for us to give up. We just let them get to the paint too much,” Hix said.

By contrast, in the second half, “we really did a good job of just kind of making things hard for them, not letting them get to the basket,” he said.

With the win, Rio Rico will now play on Wednesday, Feb. 19, in the next round of the 4A Conference state tournament. Their opponent and the location of the game is set to be announced Saturday.

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Luisayde Chavez gets tied up in the lane.

Thursday’s play-in game started with the teams trading leads until Chavez drove the lane and stopped abruptly, sending her defender sprawling to the floor. She calmly drained the open jump shot that put the Hawks up 17-15 after one quarter.

Rio Rico grew its lead to 22-15 when Yamileth Barcelo was fouled while putting in an offensive rebound, then converted the free throw with 6:52 remaining in the second period.

But after a timeout, Palo Verde started to come back, eventually going ahead 30-28 on a three-pointer by Anais Sanchez with 2:25 left in the quarter. Another Titans basket followed by two free throws by the Hawks’ Alexis Mora made the score 32-30 in favor of the visitors at the break.

The lead went back-and-forth to start the second half, with Alexia Cano scoring five points on a drive and three free throws for the Hawks. With 1:25 left in the third quarter, Barcelo hit a jump shot to put Rio Rico ahead by a point, and April Martinez drained a three-pointer with four seconds left to boost the lead to 41-37.

The Hawks went ahead by as many as 10 points in the fourth quarter, thanks largely to their flawless free throw shooting. Chavez, Martinez and Barcelo went a combined 11-for-11 from the line in the period, and the Hawks were 20-for-22 as a team in the game.

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The Rio Rico fans celebrate a big play.

Chavez finished with 20 points and four steals to lead RRHS. Martinez scored 11 points and Barcelo added nine points and eight rebounds.

Kiana Ortiz led Palo Verde with 15 points.

Best of three

Thursday marked the third meeting this season between Rio Rico and Palo Verde, with the Hawks taking the final two contests after losing to the Titans 60-49 on Jan. 20 in the MLK Classic at the McKale Center in Tucson.

“It was probably the worst game we played all year from an effort standpoint,” Coach Hix said of the loss. “But I think, blessing in disguise, it really turned into a jumping off point for us moving forward. I think the girls realized that we can be beat and if we don’t lay hard, we’re susceptible.”

Rio Rico won its next eight straight games after that, including a 42-31 win over Palo Verde at RRHS on Feb. 4. The Hawks wrapped up the 4A Gila Region title with a 9-1 regional record, and are 15-4 overall as they prepare for their next postseason game.

The Hawk girls have qualified for the postseason four straight years, but haven’t been able to advance past the quarterfinal round. Pesqueira, who has been a member of all four of those playoff teams, said she’s hoping this year will be different.

“With this team, we have better communication and I feel that we can go farther,” she said.

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