DURANGO – It didn’t take long for the Panthers to establish their identity for this year’s season. Just a few days after Thanksgiving, Montezuma-Cortez feasted on Durango turnovers, thanks to a high-pressure defense, and captured a season-opening road victory over the Demons, 59-46.
Opening the slate after one of the best seasons in school history, a 19-6 record and a 3A State quarterfinal appearance, many questions faced the Panthers (1-0) during the offseason, including how they would manage interior production after graduation hit M-CHS hard last spring.
Sixth-year head coach Mike Hall took on the challenge, instituting a feisty half-court defense with tremendous ball pressure that forced numerous Durango turnovers in the opening minutes. The Panthers shut out the Demons (0-1) for the first 6½ minutes of the game and build a 12-0 lead.
As standout senior returners Teagan Whiteskunk and Titus Jackson, the team’s two leading scorers from a year ago, took charge, the Panthers used quick ball movement to open up opportunities. Whiteskunk tallied eight points in the first quarter, and the Panthers appeared poised to run away with the game as they took a 16-5 lead after eight minutes.
Appearing shell-shocked by the initial Panther pressure, it took Durango well into the second quarter to find their bearings on their home floor. Demon sophomore guard Anthony Flint found some success attacking the basket, and Durango cut into the lead, drawing within 23-15 at halftime.
The third quarter belonged to Jackson, who demonstrated the athleticism that makes him a handful for opposing defenders, scoring eight of his game-high 21 points in the frame. However, the Demons continued to hang around, in part because their press that forced M-CHS miscues that led to easy Durango buckets. After three quarters, the Panthers held a 37-28 edge.
That’s when the Panthers started to showcase some of the emerging players that will take on prominent roles this year. Senior Andrew Wood, exasperating Durango guards all game, scored five points in the fourth quarter to spark a decisive run for the Panthers. The Panthers also got a big three-pointer from sophomore JT Carver, which expanded the Panthers lead to its largest of the game, 43-28.
Senior Panther newcomer Giovanni Carta added five points, including free throws down the stretch to allow the Panthers to seal the victory.
As for working through replacing the post defense, M-CHS used a variety of defenders, including Carta and seniors Blake Keetch and Travis Beason to frustrate the Demons’ inside game.
In a game that looked like the first game of the season for both squads, full of turnovers, fouls and mental mistakes, Hall immediately pointed to his pleasure in how his team brought energy to the floor.
“Aggressive – that’s how we’re going to have to play this year,” said Hall. “We know that we won’t have the size that we had last year, but I was pleased with the fight we showed in the first game.”
After establishing their first-quarter lead, the Panthers never allowed the margin to drop below eight points, demonstrating early season resilience.
Whiteskunk also finished in double figures for M-CHS, tallying 15 points on the night. Carta and Wood both added five points apiece. Flint scored 10 points for Durango, and teammate Sam Johnson paced the Demons with 13 points.
“We know we’ll have to clean up the turnovers,” said Hall, reflecting on the improvement he hopes to see heading into this weekend’s Mountain Top Tournament at Centauri High School in La Jara, “but we got past the first game jitters, so I’m confident we’ll get better.”
Durango head coach Alan Batiste said his team executed well but committed too many turnovers. DHS had 39 on the night and gave up 25 offensive rebounds.
“The 0-for-8 start and the 14 turnovers in the first hurt us,” Batiste said, adding, “Cortez was super quick, and it comes down to execution.
“You’re not going to give yourself that many opportunities to win when you commit that many turnovers. Great teams capitalize off of that. In reality, Cortez could’ve put up 85 points.”
The Panthers will take on Las Animas, Olathe, and Moffat County over the three-day event running Thursday, Dec. 5 through Saturday, Dec. 7, hoping that they can continue the strong start to the season.
Brendan Ploen of The Durango Herald contributed to this article.