Coach Lori Stephenson communicating the gameplan during a timeout. (Photo by Keythin Thomas)

MCC women’s basketball finishes stellar season

After taking home the Region I Division II women’s basketball championship, the Mesa Community College women’s basketball team finally fell in the semifinals of the NJCAA Division II tournament after a heartbreaking loss to Johnson County Community College.

As this was the second loss in the tournament for the Thunderbirds, previously being defeated by CCBC Essex 72-50, This officially put an end to their storybook season. 

Regardless of the result, the team still played their hearts out, and while they may not have taken home national gold, they did not end this season empty handed. 

After finishing strong in the regular season, going 20-7, their postseason involved two regional playoff matchups: The semifinal game with the Glendale Gauchos, where they won 63-50, and the championship game against Pima Aztecs, where they won 66-58. They also defeated the Wake Tech Eagles in the first round of the NJCAA tournament by a score of 65-50. After all was said and done, Mesa finished 23-9 on the season.

MCC star guard Jayla Johnson takes a free throw during the first half of the regional semifinal game against Glendale. (Photo by Keythin Thomas)

Overall, the Thunderbirds  averaged 65.8 points per game this season, shooting 37.2 percent from the field. While not the greatest, this team’s strength lies in their defense, smothering opponents to a shockingly low 32.4 percent from the field. 

There were multiple occasions during the season where the Thunderbirds held their opponents to below 40 points in an entire game, and below 10 points in an entire quarter. This was in part due to the pesky defensive efforts by the team as a whole, averaging 9.4 steals per game and 3.5 blocks per game.

The airtight MCC defense occurred throughout the entire season, allowing the Thunderbirds to take early leads throughout most of their games. This, more often than not, led to victories for MCC. After all, it’s easier to get a win after taking a lead as opposed to having to come from behind.

What makes this season-long feat  much more impressive is what it takes for this type of grit and grind playstyle. Defense heavy basketball requires everyone on the team to buy in, play unselfish, and be willing to go hard on both sides of the court. 

Additionally, defensive impact is easier to notice when it is not there, as opposed to when the competition is being locked down. And even still, some may blame the poor offensive woes on the offense itself, not even considering the opposing defense. It’s a playstyle that comes with no praise. 

And yet, this team not only chose to play this way, but excelled in this system throughout the year. Head coach Kori Stephenson believes that the reason they were able to play the way they did was due to the overall coachability of the team. 

The Thunderbirds celebrate taking down the Glendale Gauchos. (Photo by Keythin Thomas)

“They had an attitude about themselves to always learn and improve the whole season,” she stated, “They never stayed the same. Everyday that came they just wanted to learn.”

This coachability was also crucial in allowing MCC to weather the storm of the early season setbacks that would hinder almost every other team completely. 

Season ending injuries to forward Stacey Begay and a COVID-19 outbreak in December led to a three game losing streak against regional competition that ended up dropping the Thunderbirds to an 8-6 start to the season.

 These factors would almost certainly knock down lesser competition, but despite the adversity, they pulled through and succeeded with flying colors. After their loss to Eastern Arizona 72-49, everything seemed to click. Mesa would end the year with a dominant stretch of basketball, going 14-1 to end the season.

Players like Jayla Johnson, who was named the ACCAC DII Women’s Basketball Player of the Year, were key in this stretch, thriving despite the challenges stacked against her. The stellar student athlete had achieved all season long, leading the team with 13.4 points per game on 34.1 percent shooting.

The star guard took home multiple ACCAC DII Women’s Basketball Player of the Week awards, earned a spot on 1st Team All ACCAC, and perhaps most notably, was named on the NJCAA All-American Second Team.

“She brought so much competitiveness, composure, and a killer instinct to our team,” Coach Stephenson said regarding Johnson to“She has such an uncanny mental approach to being a student-athlete, and that is something I have never been around!”

Other players who brought the Thunderbirds great success during the 2021-22 season included Mykah Anderson, who took home Second Team All ACCAC after averaging 10.4 points per game, and Love Troupe, who led the team in rebounds with 6 per contest.

All in all, despite the heartbreaking losses to both Johnson County and CCBC Essex to end their tournament run, there is plenty to celebrate regarding the Thunderbirds incredible season. From the individual accolades, to the raising of a new championship banner, even if it is not the one they had hoped for, fans and players alike should be proud of how this season went.

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