Playing in its first state tournament in more than a decade, the Montezuma-Cortez High School boys’ basketball team started strong before fading down the stretch of a 51-30 opening-round loss to Sterling.
Factoring heavily in the Panthers loss was an outstanding defensive effort by Sterling, which ran a tough man-to-man defense throughout much of the contest and held M-CHS’ high-scoring offense in check throughout the game.
Juniors Titus Jackson and Teagan Whiteskunk each scored seven points for the Panthers, and senior Michael Diaz scored seven points off the bench for M-CHS during what turned out to be his final high school game.
Highlighting the contest for the Panthers was an outstanding first quarter during which M-CHS built a 7-2 lead, thanks to solid defense that consistently forced Sterling players into difficult shots from the perimeter.
Senior Jens Jorgensen put the Panthers ahead 2-0 with a runner in the lane with 6:04 left in the opening quarter, and junior Adrian Mark drained a 3-pointer from the right wing shortly thereafter to put his team ahead 5-0.
Sterling scored its first points of the game with 1:35 in the first quarter when junior Axel Henry drained two free throws. Sterling’s offense began to come to life in the second quarter, however, thanks to senior Carter Keil, who scored 10 points in quarter to help Sterling build a 19-13 halftime lead.
After receiving a pep talk from head coach Michael Hall during the halftime break, M-CHS returned to the court with renewed inspiration and scored five quick points, thanks to a 3-pointer by Whiteskunk and a jumper by junior Titus Jackson.
Down 19-18 and primed for a big run, the Panthers offense stalled however, as Sterling closed the third quarter on a 15-4 run that was ignited by a two-handed dunk by senior Jayson Frank that elicited large cheers from Sterling fans.
Hoping to cut into its 34-22 deficit with a big fourth-quarter run, M-CHS’ offense continued to struggle as Sterling began the game’s final period on a 6-0 run that included six consecutive points from senior Colton Shalla.
Four fourth-quarter points from Jackson, two fourth-quarter points from Whiteskunk, and two fourth-quarter points from senior Cordell Baer were not enough for the Panthers as Sterling built on its lead and ensured that it would advance to the state semifinals.
Although the game’s final result was a disappointing one for M-CHS, the team’s season as a whole was a historic one as the Panthers won 19 of their 25 games, captured an Intermountain League District Tournament Championship, and won a regional championship.
Over the course of their exciting season, local fans came to adore their hometown Panthers as a result of the team’s grit and never quit attitude.
Seniors Cordell Baer, Jens Jorgensen and Michael Diaz left indelible marks on their school and community, while several M-CHS underclassmen provided hope that their school’s basketball program will continue to excel in coming years.
At the end of the day, this year’s Panthers team will be remembered for its victories rather than its losses and for its triumphs rather than its defeats. Ultimately, this year’s team will be remembered for putting M-CHS boys basketball back on the map.