There will be no backing into the NJCAA tournament for the Central Arizona College men's basketball team.
Playing with the heart, resolve and grit of a true champion, CAC overcame a 10-point deficit to storm past Salt Lake 88-78 on Saturday night in the District 1 title game at the George Young Activity Center. The 10th-ranked Vaqueros (29-4) advanced to the national tourney for the first time since 2002 by outscoring the No. 5 Bruins 15-3 in the final 3:17.
"It hasn't really hit me yet," CAC coach Jordan Dreiling said. "I'm just incredibly proud of our guys."
Instead of hoping to gain an at-large berth in the 24-team field, which is what would have happened with a loss, Central punched its ticket to Hutchinson, Kan., with a second-half performance for the ages. The Vaqueros shot 63 percent from the field (20 of 32) and went 10 for 12 from the line in outscoring Salt Lake 54-36. The defense stepped up to force 12 turnovers, which CAC converted into 15 points.
"The guys never give up on each other," Dreiling said. "They're so resilient, and they believe in themselves and the coaches."
The situation looked bleak for the Vaqueros late in the first half as the Bruins twice took a 10-point lead. Down 42-34 at halftime, Central hung tough and finally regained the lead at 52-51 on Zakarius Wells' basket with 15:18 to play.
There were eight more lead changes after that, and neither team owned more than a three-point lead until the Vaqueros broke loose at the end.
Getting back into the game was a matter of "making layups and getting stops," Dreiling said. "The guys just kept encouraging each other."
The team also drew strength from the fans who packed the gym, Dreiling said.
"What an incredible crowd. It was unbelievable," he said. "Our guys gained energy from them and maintained it until the end."
Central went 18-1 at home this season.
Herve Aholode provided team highs of 23 points and nine rebounds for CAC, which matched the program record for wins set in 1991-92 — the first time the Vaqueros reached the NJCAA tournament.
"The wins have been great and the championships have been great (Central also won the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference title and the Region 1 tournament), but building the memories has been the best thing," Dreiling said.
DesJuan Newton and DeAndre Mathieu came on strong in the second half, when Newton scored 15 of his 22 points and Mathieu had 14 of his 18. Austin Cooke made two three-pointers in each half and finished with 14 points.
Aholode went 8 for 10 from the field, Mathieu was 7 for 11 and Cooke went 4 for 6. Mathieu also had eight assists and four steals.
Central received quality minutes from reserves LeBrent Walker (seven points) and Wells (four).
"Those guys made some huge plays," Dreiling said.
Vincentas Aleksandravicuis twisted an ankle in the first half and played limited minutes. Cooke soldiered on despite dinging his knee in the first half, and Newton battled leg cramps in the second half.
The Bruins took their last lead at 75-73 with 3:34 remaining on Sai Tummala's three-pointer from the right corner. But they went 1 for 6 from the field with two turnovers on their last eight possessions.
Newton's basket with 3:17 left made it 75-75, and his inside basket with 2:32 remaining put Central ahead to stay. Then came a three-pointer from the right corner by Cooke that extended the lead to 80-75 with 1:53 to play.
After Cooke and Mathieu each converted both ends of a 1-and-1, Central punctuated the victory with rim-rattling jams by Aholode and Mathieu in the final 16 seconds.
Salt Lake's only points in the last 3½ minutes came on JuWan Buchanan's three-pointer with 32.6 seconds left. Buchanan had four three-pointers and led the Bruins with 24 points.
There were 10 lead changes and four ties in the opening 10 minutes, with neither team holding more than a four-point edge. But the half ended with CAC missing its final nine shots following Mathieu's basket with 5:35 remaining.
Jaden Jackson's basket put Salt Lake up 40-30 with 1:07 left in the half and one by Gary Payton II made it 42-32 with 24 seconds remaining.
The Bruins shot 51 percent in the first half (18 of 35) while holding the Vaqueros to 32 percent (11 of 34).
Skyler Halford scored 14 points and Tummala had 13 for Salt Lake, which had won its previous nine games and 24 of 25.