SIGNAL PEAK — Improbable hopes of competing in the postseason were realized for the Central Arizona College men's basketball team with one game to spare.
The Vaqueros earned a trip to the four-team Division I Region 1 tournament with a 90-77 victory over Eastern Arizona on Saturday at the George Young Activity Center. As the No. 4 seed, Central likely will play at Arizona Western on Saturday.
"I take my hat off to this team. The guys fought through everything," CAC coach Tramaine Aaron said. "I was proud to see the growth of these kids. It was great for them and for the program."
Central (12-16, 8-13 Arizona Community College Athletic Conference) has won seven of its last 12 conference games following a 1-8 start.
Trever Irish kept the Vaqueros within striking distance in the first half by scoring 17 of his 30 points, which was a season-best for the 7-foot freshman. Down 36-31 at the break, Central seized control with runs of 16-0 and 17-2 in the opening 11 minutes of the second half.
"The last seven or eight games, we've been playing two solid halves," Aaron said. "The guys recognized the gravity of this game and they finished it. Kudos to the guys for keeping their foot on the gas."
Davon Bolton scored 22 points and Rayvaughn Bolton had 14 for the Gila Monsters (13-16, 7-14 ACCAC).
Even if Central loses to South Mountain (18-10, 11-9) in Tuesday's regular-season finale and Eastern beats Glendale (8-20, 2-18), the Vaqueros are in the playoffs because they own the tiebreaker against the Gila Monsters. CAC went 2-0 against Eastern, defeating the Gila Monsters 79-66 in their Jan. 17 meeting.
Eastern took a 38-31 lead with a basket in the opening minute of the second half, then went scoreless on its next nine possessions. Central, meanwhile knocked down six of its first seven shots, including a 3-pointer by Leonard, and hit 3 of 4 free throws in taking a 47-38 lead with 15:32 remaining.
After the Gila Monsters reduced the margin to 49-46 on Amari Stafford's 3-pointer with 12:44 left, Osborn's 3-pointer ignited CAC's second humongous surge. The burst also included another 3-pointer by Osborn and a three-point play by Irish, who had seven points in the run. When it was over, the Vaqueras owned a 66-48 lead with 9:10 to play.
Osborn's 3-pointer with 6:02 remaining extended Central's lead to 19 points at 75-66.
"Our offensive flow was a lot better in the second half," Aaron said. "And we did a better job of holding (Eastern) to one shot and getting rebounds."
Entering Saturday's games, Western was the top Division I team in the ACCAC with a 15-5 mark. Cochise and Mesa both were 13-7 in conference play.