Sahuaro may have come in as the unquestioned favorites — a #7 seed, a home-court advantage, a glitzy 23-4 record before last week's state match-up with #10 Marana.
The Tigers forced the Cougars to sweat out the finish before Sahuaro won, 43-41.
Though they trailed for almost the entire game, the Tigers delayed the ultimate outcome into the final seconds by mounting a furious second-half rally.
The Tigers' Jamee Swan put the ball in off the backboard with 23 seconds left to tie it at 41-41. Sahuaro's Cashala Thompson drove to the basket for two with about 10 seconds left. After the inbounds pass, Thompson forced a turnover and the Cougars escaped with the win.
"We couldn't get the last timeout," said Marana co-coach Lisa McBride. "I wasn't loud enough."
Ironically, the Tigers (14-9) had also battled the Cougars to a two-point difference on Feb. 5 in Marana, handing Sahuaro one of only four losses on the year, 47-45.
The Cougars appeared to be in control of the game, using a 14-0 run to lead 27-18 into halftime. Additionally, Sahuaro held Swan, who averaged 21.5 points and 15 rebounds during the year, to three in the first half.
"They were double-teaming me," Swan said.
The second half belonged to Swan. The 6-3 sophomore carried the Tigers on her back and scored 18 of her 21 points after the break.
"I told Jamee not to worry about the crowd," McBride said. "Just post up."
The turnaround began when Swan was knocked down in the midst of burying a shot from the outside. After making the free throw, the deficit was trimmed to 29-21. Just when it appeared the Cougars would reassert themselves after a three-pointer by Thompson, Olivia Brown buried a trey to make it 32-24.
The Tigers went on a 12-3 run, as Swan scored six straight to make it 34-30 after three stanzas.
Swan scored and was fouled with 4:05 left in the game. Her three-point play made it 38-37. Then, with 2:24 remaining, a Swan bucket tied it at 39-39.
Sahuaro's Thompson buried a shot to give the lead back to the Cougars 41-39, and set the stage for the final minute's drama.
Thompson led the Cougars with 16 points. Rachel Holmes added 11 and had several assists.
Coming within seconds of overtime was an impressive feat for a Tiger squad that battled more than its share of adversity all year.
"Our coach quit two days before practice," Swan said. "This is amazing for how bad our season started."
Senior Lindsay Honea appeared to be the perfect complement to Swan, averaging nearly 20 points a game through the first three games, but she's been unable to play since December because of injury.
The Tigers soldiered on with Swan and their four senior starters, Olivia Brown, Mary Innabi, Jessie Wengert and Brianna Gruenwald.
"I'm proud of our team," Swan said. "That's the best game we've had this year."
McBride was happy with the playoff berth, and the competitive play against a very good Sahuaro team.
"It was awesome for us to get this far," McBride said. "I couldn't be prouder."