Heading into the Southwest Classic basketball tournament, few would have predicted Montezuma-Cortez High School sophomore John Thomas Carver would emerge as the hero of the two-day event.
Sports have a wonderful tendency to deliver the unexpected. Thomas Carver knocked down a go-ahead 3-pointer with 1 minute, 20 seconds left in the fourth quarter to help his team defeat previously undefeated Ignacio 70-66 on Saturday, and Thomas Carver forever etched his name into this season’s lore.
His shot came shortly after an M-CHS timeout and turned a 66-64 deficit into a 67-66 lead. Prior to the big bucket, the Panthers had not led since senior Andrew Wood knocked down a free throw early in the first quarter to put his team ahead 1-0.
“I know everybody has faith in me, and I was feeling it,” Thomas Carver said. “I told (M-CHS head coach Michael Hall) I would knock down the shot, and he gave it to me, and I stepped up.”
Hall drew up the play that freed Thomas Carver during the timeout.
“That’s a big shot, especially for a sophomore to hit,” said Hall. “(Thomas Carver) comes in off the bench, and he hadn’t played a whole lot. He’s a good shooter, and we set that play up for him...knowing what was going to happen. He knocks down that shot and changes the whole outcome.”
While Thomas Carver’s shot served as the unforgettable moment of the back-and-forth contest between the Panthers and Bobcats, the sophomore’s clutch bucket would not have been possible absent an impressive performance from M-CHS senior Adrian Mark, who scored all 17 of his points in the second half.
Knocking down an array of jump shots from multiple positions on the floor and penetrating the lane almost at will, Mark’s scoring outburst allowed the Panthers to overcome a 40-30 halftime deficit and a 53-45 deficit entering the fourth quarter.
“(My approach) was to just play smart and play as a team and keep on moving the ball, find the open shots and execute when we had a chance to,” Mark said. “We’ve been playing together since we were little, so we always know how to play together. We’re a bunch of strong-headed kids that never want to give up and never want to lose, so I guess that plays a factor.”
Prior to Mark’s second-half explosion and Thomas Carver’s clutch shot, the contest was defined by Ignacio’s pinpoint shooting, which yielded seven 3-point field goals in the first half and 11 3-point field goals in the game.
Draining four of those 3-pointers and scoring 18 of his team-high 21 points in the first half was Ignacio junior Bryce Finn, whose ability to mix post ups on the low block with deft shooting from the outside gave the Panthers fits during the first 16 minutes.
“We (were thinking) that we gotta play (defense) and try to stop them,” Mark said when asked about Ignacio’s hot shooting. “We wanted to limit their shots from the perimeter and play defense as best we could.”
Chief among the key players on the defensive end for the Panthers was senior Titus Jackson, who came up with three steals during an 11-0 M-CHS run during the second quarter that cut the Bobcats’ lead from 32-17 to 32-28 before the Bobcats closed the half on an 8-2 run and carried a 40-30 lead into halftime.
Knowing they would need more offense in the second half if they hoped to overcome their 10-point deficit, the Panthers leaned heavily on Jackson and senior Teagan Whiteskunk, who combined to score eight of their team’s 15 points in the third quarter.
Both of M-CHS’ leading scorers, Jackson and Whiteskunk, fouled out in the fourth quarter, however, which set the stage for Mark and Thomas Carver to step up down the stretch.
Jackson led the way offensively for the Panthers with 20 points. Mark scored 17 points and Whiteskunk chipped in 16.Other than Finn, Ignacio was led by Gabe Tucson, who scored 12 points, and Ocean Hunter, who chipped in 10 before he fouled out.
Now 5-3 on the season and riding a two-game winning streak, M-CHS will kick off Intermountain League play when it hits the road to play Pagosa Springs on Friday, and they will return home for a game against Bayfield (1-7) on Saturday.
Ignacio, which is now 5-1 on the season, will play its next game at home against Dolores on Friday before squaring off against Mancos on Jan. 21.
If Saturday’s big win against Ignacio was any indication, the Panthers appear to be getting hot at the right time.
“We gotta take momentum into league now,” Hall said. “We’ve got Pagosa on Friday night at their place, and we have to keep this momentum up because Pagosa is a tough team. Bayfield comes here on Saturday, and you can’t put your head down on them because they can rattle off some points real quick. We just have to carry this momentum and keep going.”