When players, coaches, and local sports fans look back on March 2, 2019, they will remember a boys basketball game between Montezuma-Cortez High School and Centauri High School as one of the most exciting contests of their lives.
They will remember the joy on the faces of the victors and the pained expressions on the faces of the vanquished. They will reflect on an incredible 32 minutes of regulation basketball, and they will never forget two overtime periods that were downright spectacular.
Most of all, they will remember the heart of the hometown Panthers, who refused to give up and never gave in during a 66-62 victory over the Falcons that resulted in Montezuma-Cortez High School’s first regional championship in more than a decade.
If ever a team earned the distinction of having “The Heart of a Champion,” the Panthers did so on Saturday afternoon. And after the game was complete, clearly elated head coach Michael Hall spoke about his team’s performance.
“Their fight (makes them special),” said Hall. “They have fight like nobody I’ve ever seen before. Centauri was up on us by six or eight, and our boys came back and fought hard. I can’t say anything other than they never quit.”
Among the most memorable sequences of the contest came during a final four minutes of regulation, which included numerous hotly contested possessions, several defensive stands by both teams, two lead changes and a tie.
M-CHS junior Jackson came up big during the critical stretch with an incredible right-handed scoop shot in traffic, a high-flying jump shot from the left elbow and an offensive rebound and putback that helped the Panthers turn a 48-47 deficit into a 53-50 lead.
“I didn’t want to lose, that was mainly it,” said Jackson, when asked about his big baskets. “I wanted to get (my teammates) pumped up a bit, and I did what I needed to do. I just really didn’t want to lose the game.”
After a long 3-pointer from the top of the key by Centauri senior Martin Garcia tied the game, 53-53, with just under a minute to go, M-CHS stalled for more than 40 seconds before head coach Michal Hall called a timeout with 16 seconds left.
M-CHS’ designed play out of the timeout went awry when star junior Teagan Whiteskunk turned the ball over with 3 seconds left, however, and after Centauri failed to convert a half-court heave, the game headed to overtime.
“We kept our composure,” said Jackson, discussing his team’s inability to hold its late-game lead. “With a game that goes that deep, you have to keep your head. It’s not over until the final buzzer.”
With Panthers players drawing inspiration from their raucous fans during the opening minutes of the overtime period, M-CHS built a 58-53 lead thanks to a free throw by Jackson, two free throws by Whiteskunk and a layup by senior Jens Jorgensen with 1:00 left in the game.
A circus shot by Centauri freshman Baron Holman and a long 3-pointer by Garcia tied the game, 58-58, with 13 seconds to go, however, and after Jackson narrowly missed a difficult fadeaway jumper at the buzzer, the teams headed to a second overtime.
In the second overtime, the Panthers quickly built a 62-58 lead after a layup by Jackson and a layup by senior Cordell Baer, which came after a nifty pass by Whiteskunk.
A nifty runner by Centauri freshman Mason Claunch made the score 62-60 with 1:19 left, but the Falcons never drew any closer thanks two free throws by Jackson with 29.3 seconds left and two free throws by Whiteskunk with 10.6 seconds left to make the score 66-61,
After Centauri junior Noah Sowards knocked down a free throw with 2.2 seconds left, M-CHS inbounded the ball and the final buzzer sounded over deafening cheers from what was a near-capacity crowd.
“You start winning, and you have a good team and great kids, and everybody wants to be a part of it,” Hall said, when asked about the atmosphere. “We’ve got us a good community here following these boys, and that’s what needs to happen.”
Among the leading scorers for the Panthers were Jackson and Whiteskunk, who scored 15 points each. Senior Michael Diaz scored 12 points for the Panthers, and senior Baer scored eight points and controlled the boards throughout the game.
“All the work, it finally paid off,” Baer said. “This is probably the best thing that has happened in my high school career.”
“Basketball is the biggest thing in my life, pretty much,” said Diaz. “I look forward to basketball every day. This is one of the best ways that I could have gone out, winning a regional championship in my last home game.”
“Hard work, that’s what it is,” said Whiteskunk. “It’s crazy, I’ve put in the hard work my whole life just to get here. I’ve been watching basketball games ever since I was little, watching my brother, because I wanted to get (to state). I got there.”
The No. 7 seeded Panthers will open the Class 3A State Tournament against No. 2 seed Sterling High School at Denver University on Thursday., which Hall expects to be competitive.
“I just found out that we’re going to be playing Sterling,” Hall said. They have two big kids, and we have two big kids. I think we match up great. Our approach is to keep going hard and see what happens.”
“State champs is what we’re looking at,” Baer said. “We have a tough game against Sterling, but I think if we keep our heads, we’re not going to have a problem. We’re going to have to play our best basketball.”
Before the Panthers turn their attention to Sterling, however, players, coaches, and fans will take at least the rest of the evening to reflect on M-CHS’ win over Centauri, which will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the most exciting in school history.