Tampa Scott IV sets for a free throw attempt in MCC’s conference opener against South Mountain Community College on Nov. 22, 2023. (Photo by Dylan Kessler courtesy of the MCC Athletics department)

Lester Neal leads the Mesa Community College men’s basketball team to postseason in his first year as head coach

The Mesa Community College men’s basketball team will play Cochise College in the first round of the ACCAC Division II playoffs on Saturday, March 4 at 7:00 p.m.

Head coach Lester Neal has led his team to the postseason in his first year in charge of the program, as theThunderbirds finished the regular season with an overall record of 10-19 and a conference record of 6-16.

MCC is the fourth of four seeds in the postseason, so they will take the nearly three hour drive to Douglas, AZ to take on the No. 1 seed Cochise College Apaches. 

The Apaches are 26-2 overall and 22-0 in conference play, all while stringing together a 26 game win streak. They are also ranked 11th nationally in the NJCAA.

MCC lost both games against Cochise this season. 

In their first game on Jan. 18, the Apaches won 86-68, while in their most recent game on Feb. 22, Cochise won 75-61.

The Thunderbirds are coming off of a win in their last regular season game against South Mountain Community College, 85-76. An encouraging sign for MCC in their final regular season game was their ability to compete for the entire 40 minutes of game play.

A frustrating trait of the Thunderbirds at times this season has been their ability to compete with their opponent in the first half, but slowly in the second half, the opposing team will string together runs that MCC just could not answer. 

In MCC’s 22 conference games, the Thunderbirds only scored more points than their opponent in the second half five times. Of their six conference wins, they only outscored their opponent in the final half three times.

However, in their last game against SMCC the Thunderbirds outscored the Cougars 44-36 in the second half, including a 25-16 run in the final 10 minutes for MCC.

“Everybody is not going into the playoffs with a win,” said Neal, “some teams are going into the playoffs with a loss, that was our motivation going into the South Mountain game we wanted to go into the playoffs on a win.”

 Both games between the two schools had similarities, one glaring statistic that went in the favor of the Apaches was rebounding. 

In both games combined, Cochise outrebounded MCC 77-47. Oscar Cluff leads Cochise in rebounds per game and is 4th in the conference with 9.5. 

Neal and the Thunderbirds know they will have their work cut out for them on the glass, but Neal believes rebounding isn’t as difficult as many think it is, all it comes down to is wanting it more.

“There’s a lot of rebound opportunities that we didn’t take advantage of in regards to putting bodies on guys. It takes will and desire to make sure you put a body on someone, I think that will be the key,” said Neal.

To the average fan looking at the two teams’ records, many would believe Cochise will take it to the Thunderbirds and move onto the ACCAC Division II finals. 

Neal and the Thunderbirds are taking that in stride, and since they are the underdog in the contest, they do not feel the pressure to win and are partly banking on Cochise feeling the pressure not to lose after such a historic season.

“I don’t think there’s any pressure on us. Nobody expects us to win except the guys in that locker room, the pressure is all on Cochise so we just have to be confident, respect our program we have to play a complete and close to flawless game,” said Neal.

In their last 10 games Cochise has outscored their opponents 860-709. They have two of the top five scorers in the conference, the two best shooters in the conference when it comes to field goal percentage, and they are the best shooting team in the conference by field goal percentage.

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