Ironwood Ridge beat Sahuaro 56-49 Friday night to improve to 2-0 in the 5A Southern Region. Ranked tenth coming in, the win will surely keep the Nighthawks (10-5) near the top of the rankings despite two big losses to conference powers No. 1 Mesquite and No. 4 Marana in early December.
The Cougars (10-8) have had a difficult start to region play; dropping a 40-37 decision against No. 6 Cienega the night before. The 0-2 start certainly puts the Cougars in a bind but there is still plenty of time (and games) to recover considering the “home-and-home” scheduling in the region.
Ironwood Ridge sprinted out to a 19-7 lead after the first period and that margin pretty much stayed the same until the Cougars started to make a move in the final minutes of the fourth quarter.
Down 48-35 with 4:41 left in the game, Sahuaro went on a 6-0 run to cut the lead down to 48-41 with 3:05 left. Ironwood Ridge senior Nicole Feltman responded with three straight buckets underneath to push the lead back out to 54-41.
The Cougars refused to go away and outscored the Nighthawks 8-2 down the stretch for the 56-49 final. The two runs in the final moments showed what the Cougars were capable of despite the loss.
“We are a whole new team out there,” Elena Arriaga explained. “We are still trying to figure some things out.”
Arriaga scored 16 points to lead the Cougars, giving the standout guard 999 career points. Arriaga had plenty of opportunities to break 1,000 points but she struggled with her shot, especially from the free throw line where she went 2-6.
“I’m in the gym all the time, trying to find my shot again,” Arriaga added. “I will continue to work on it more because scoring 1,000 points is a huge accomplishment, not only for me but for my teammates and the program.”
On the other side, standout Natalie Bartle scored eight points to give her 958 in her career. Not only is the junior seeking 1,000, she is within the school record of 1,186 career points set by Lexy Ram last year.
“I know I’m getting close but I didn’t know where exactly,” Bartle said. “When I was a freshman I saw all the girls getting 1,000 points and I thought it would be pretty cool to get that one day.”
Bartle feels the Nighthawks are playing with more intensity this year under a new coach.
“I knew this would be a tough game coming in because there would be a lot of pressure,” Bartle added. “They are a good team and I felt it would be pressure against pressure.”
Ken Leikem in in his first year at Ironwood Ridge. He replaced longtime coach Nikki Simpson.
Carina Mendoza added 12 points to the Cougar attack as did Shayla McCraney. Feltman matched the 16 points scored by Arriaga and Caroline Finster came up with nine points for the Nighthawks.
Ironwood Ridge will take on Flowing Wells on Monday, Jan. 16 at the MLK Classic held at the University of Arizona and Sahuaro will host Sunnyside on Tuesday, Jan. 17.