Playing in the biggest game of their careers, members of the Montezuma-Cortez High School basketball team gave a capacity crowd exactly what it wanted as the Panthers outlasted La Junta, 70-62, on Friday.
The win marked the first regionals victory in several years for M-CHS and moved the Panthers into the championship game against Centauri High School, on Saturday at 1 p.m. in Cortez.
Leading the way for M-CHS during its victory over Centauri were senior Cordell Baer, who scored a team-high 19 points, and junior Teagan Whiteskunk, who chipped in 17.
As important as its star players were, however, M-CHS’ victory would not have been possible absent the contribution of several role players, including junior Adrian Mark, who sparked the team with five points during a 16-2 run that allowed the Panthers build a 20-9 lead by the end of the first quarter.
“We were just playing good defense and executing on offense,” Mark about the opening eight minutes. “We weren’t committing any turnovers. The crowd was hyped and got our energy boosted up and got our momentum going. It was a different energy than the regular season.”
In spite of M-CHS’ hot shooting during the first half, which included two 3-point field goals from Whiteskunk and 3-pointers by Mark, senior Michael Diaz and senior Cordell Baer, La Junta hung tough thanks to senior Zach Archuleta, who scored 11 points in the opening half.
After entering the locker room at halftime with a 30-24 lead, M-CHS began the third quarter on a 14-7 run that was keyed by aggressive defense and several pretty passes by Whiteskunk that set up several Panthers players, including junior Titus Jackson, for easy transition layups.
“(Tough defense) is our game,” Jackson said. “We can battle in the paint with Cordell (Baer) and Jens (Jorgensen), but when we’re on the fast break, nobody can keep up with us.”
Although La Junta eventually cut its deficit to 54-52 after a furious 10-4 run to open the fourth quarter, M-CHS never relinquished its lead and eventually pulled away for a 70-62 victory.
Free throws by Jackson and Baer after La Junta cut the Panthers lead to 65-62 with 32 seconds left in the contest sealed the victory. After the game, Whiteskunk noted his team’s free throw shooting when discussing keys to the victory.
“Those late-game free throws are important to us,” the Panthers’ junior said. “They can decide whether we win a game or lose a game. We’ve had the experience in the past of losing a game because of free throws, so we won’t let that happen again.”
With its victory, M-CHS is now one of 16 teams that are still alive in Colorado’s 3A Classification. Standing between the Panthers and a regional championship is Intermountain League rival Centauri, which split games with M-CHS this season.
M-CHS defeated Centauri 64-57 on Jan. 19 before losing to the Falcons 70-41 on Feb. 8. When asked about their team’s game against the Falcons on March 2, M-CHS players agreed that the game would be winnable before noting that a victory over the Falcons would be significant for their school and their community.
“We lost to (Centauri) at their place, and we beat them here,” Whiteskunk said. “We’ve just got to want it more and play well.”
“(Beating Centauri) would be huge,” Mark added. “We’ve never been in this position before. These are the biggest games of our careers, and we just have to keep going.”
The regional championship game between the Panthers and Falcons will take place at Montezuma-Cortez High School at 1 p.m. Saturday.