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By Jeremy Beren
The Coronado Dons’ girls basketball is nearing the end of a difficult season, but Tuesday night’s home game vs. the Combs Coyotes will live long in head coach Isaac Jackson’s memory.
“We can hang our hat on this game, say ‘you know what, the fight in us was great,’” Jackson said.
A buzzer-beating shot from junior point guard Zhira Cephas sent the game into overtime, and the Dons rode strong rebounding and defense in the extra session to notch a 46-38 win over the Coyotes.
Junior forward Alexis Thornton contributed 10 points and 11 rebounds for the Dons (4-15, 3-6 in 4A Black Canyon), who led for nearly the entire game until the Coyotes (10-15, 5-3 in 4A Black Canyon) took the lead via a spirited comeback in the final two minutes. That set the stage for Cephas’ dramatic, leaning heave as the buzzer sounded.
“I just knew that I had to go hard for my team, to make sure that we win,” Cephas said. “Because we worked hard all season to make it, and we wanna go to state.”
Cephas led all scorers on the night with 16 points. She shot 5 of 14 from the field and 6 of 12 from the free throw line – with several critical free throws coming in the overtime session, where the Dons outscored the Coyotes 12-4.
“[Coach] was just telling us to work and we worked hard for this,” Cephas said. “He wanted us to win. He wanted this for us. We did it for our coach and we did it for each other.”
While Jackson’s encouragement may have played a big part in spurring the Dons to victory, rebounding was a key factor in the win. Buoyed by Thornton’s 11 boards, the Dons out-rebounded the Coyotes 34-23, and Jackson spoke highly of his team’s hustle after the game.
“Any time you can have rebounds, that’s gonna change the possession,” the third-year coach said. “And if we can get offensive rebounds and put ‘em back, that’s gonna be huge. And I think Alexis had two huge rebounds and putbacks at the end of the game in overtime that gave us four points right there.”
The Dons got out to an early lead and led 13-5 after one quarter. The lead eventually expanded to 14 before the Coyotes pulled it back to within six points at halftime. The Dons maintained that six-point edge after three quarters and looked set to salt the game away, shutting down 4A Black Canyon’s most potent offense in the process.
But the Coyotes, led by freshman guard Brianne Harris, had other ideas and wanted to go back to San Tan Valley with a comeback win. Harris and senior guard Kyla Pena hit several big shots inside the final two minutes, and a Harris shot gave Combs a 34-32 lead in the dying seconds. However, Cephas’ circus shot swung the momentum back in the hosts’ favor.
Combs coach Amanda Webster was proud of the comeback, but said the inability to complete it will serve as a lesson learned for her team.
“I think that the Dons just wanted it more than we did,” Webster said. “We got confused, we kinda shied away from the ball, didn’t take care of it. In the end, we’re just looking for the girls to learn, and [this was] definitely a learning experience.”
Harris led the Coyotes with 13 points, while Pena finished with eight points. Senior forward Ashlyn Allen tallied 10 points and a team-high nine rebounds.
“We’re gonna talk about [the comeback],” Webster said. “The season’s coming to an end, we have two more games and we’re excited to finish up. This is a great group of girls this year, for sure.”
The Dons next play Monday, Jan. 30 against the Higley Knights in Gilbert, while the Coyotes will visit Washington High School’s Rams on Tuesday, Jan. 31.
Beren is a sports journalism student at Arizona State.