DURANGO - It was the rivalry game.
The latest boys basketball rendition of Montezuma-Cortez High School and Durango didn't disappoint.
Both teams played tough defensively, resulting in some offensive inefficiency on both sides.
But it was the visiting Panthers that came out swinging. Strong team rebounding and strong post play by Briston Walker gave M-CHS a 19-16 lead at halftime.
Things were looking good.
"The first half - that's probably the best half we've played the whole season," first-year Panthers coach Cory Gropp said. "We looked really, really amazing."
However, early in the third quarter, the Demons applied pressure with a full-court press.
The Panthers weren't ready.
Up 21-18, Durango's frustrating pressure forced M-CHS into four straight turnovers. William Frownfelter's layup gave the Demons a 23-21 lead and the home fans new energy.
Gropp tried to calm the storm by frantically signaling for a timeout to the officials. But the refs didn't see it.
Another Durango steal and a Ty Elliott 3-pointer upped Durango's lead to 26-21. The Demons' run grew to 14-0 and a lead of 32-21 in the third, which proved to be the difference in the game.
The rivals played nearly even from there, but the Panthers didn't have a run of their own in them.
M-CHS lost Thursday night, 56-44.
"That third quarter, we turn the ball over four times. We couldn't get out of that hole. That's what killed us," Gropp said. "I can't count how many times we worked on press break where the ball's on the opposite end and the other guy comes in the middle (and steals the ball). We just had a mental lapse. I don't know what it was."
M-CHS (3-11, 0-5 5A/4A Southwestern League) has traveled a long road since Dec. 21. Now the Panthers come home for five games. But coach Gropp knows his team has to start winning if it wants to play in its district tournament.
"We have to go 5-0," he said. "If we go 5-0, we'll get the second or third spot in districts."
For three quarters Thursday, M-CHS played like a winning team. But a bad third frame allowed Durango (10-4, 3-2 SWL) to basically put the game out of reach, as it built a 48-26 lead.
The Panthers only connected on 2-of-20 3-pointers (Alex Lopez and Brackin Whiteskunk).
Durango opened a 9-4 lead early in the second quarter before M-CHS started chipping away. Down 12-8, Walker scored back-to-back layups to tie the game at 12.
Caleb Kennedy hit a long 2 for Durango, but Walker answered back down low to knot the score at 14.
The Panthers first lead came at 15-14 after a Jaron Carver free throw. Tallon Ralstin found Walker below the basket for two more to give M-CHS a 17-14 lead. The Panthers lead remained three at halftime and they led 21-18 early in the third before the Demons decisive run.
"It was a tough loss," Gropp said. "The first half was amazing. The second half was that third quarter. That's all."
Walker paced the Panthers with a double-double of 14 points and 11 rebounds. Whiteskunk scored 11 and Lopez tallied seven points. M-CHS committed 25 turnovers.
Elliott led Durango with 12 points, while Nick Hamlin chipped in 10.
The Panthers will play in the friendly confines of Ron Wright Memorial Gym for the rest of the regular season.
"It's going to be nice to have a five home game stretch and get our crowd behind us," Gropp said. "It's nice not having to travel to Grand Junction and other areas."
M-CHS hosts Grand Junction Central and Fruita Monument next Friday and Saturday at 7 and 1:30 p.m.