Before tipping off against Monte Vista High School Feb. 15, the Montezuma-Cortez High School boys basketball program honored its seven seniors with a few tears and plenty of cheers.
Then, the Panthers took the court and took care of business by posting 66-51 victory over a scrappy Pirates team that had defeated them earlier this season.
Keying the victory were seniors Titus Jackson, who battled through an ankle injury and scored a game-high 24 points, and Teagan Whiteskunk, who fed off the home crowd and chipped in 16 points. Senior Adrian Mark scored added eight.
“These guys have built this place,” “I still get choked up talking about them,” M-CHS head coach Michael Hall said about the seniors. “This group has been together this whole time, and they kind of built this program to where it is.”
While the final score seemed convincing, the opening moments of the game were anything but comfortable as Monte Vista point guard Jarren Chavez drew first blood with a long 3-pointer.
M-CHS senior Andrew Wood restored order by draining a 3-pointer, and after other seniors chimed in – Adrian Mark with five points, Titus Jackson with six and Blake Keetch with two – the Panthers finished the opening quarter ahead 16-9.
“I think those emotions (that accompany senior night), they showed up right off the bat,” Hall said. “(Monte Vista) scored a couple on us real quick, but then we settled into our offense. Knowing what (Monte Vista) was going to do, we just moved the ball real quick and got some open shots.”
As the second quarter started, the Panthers and the Pirates continued to trade buckets as Chavez scored five quick points to cut the M-CHS lead to 16-14, and Jackson later answered with three points to make the score 22-17 with just over two minutes left before the half.
It was then that Whiteskunk, who had yet to score, took control and scored 10 points over the final 1:43 of the second quarter to put the Panthers ahead 33-21 heading into the half.
Included in the scoring barrage were two long 3-pointers from the wing, a contested pullup jumper from the elbow and two free throws just before the first half expired.
“When you catch fire like that, it’s always a good boost for your team,” Whiteskunk said. “Even when I’m not scoring, I can trust my teammates to get that bucket or make that extra pass.”
Still feeding off the momentum created by Whiteskunk, M-CHS expanded its lead to 46-30 by the end of the third quarter thanks in part to two 3-point plays and a free throw by Jackson.
The Panthers coasted in the final eight minutes as Hall subbed the seniors out of the game one by one over the final four minutes. The packed arena roared with approval.
“It’s great to feel all of the support from the community the last four years,” Jackson said. “It has always been there throughout the seasons, throughout every game. I love it.”
Although M-CHS was edged in double overtime by Centauri, 71-65, at home Feb. 14, the Panthers’ win over Monte Vista improved their record to 10-9 overall and 4-6 in the Intermountain League.
M-CHS will now await the results of a IML games this week before learning of its opponent for next week’s district tournament pigtail game at home Feb. 25.
“We’re going to have to have the same approach that we had last year,” Hall said, when asked about his team’s plan heading into the postseason “Mental toughness, once you get into the (District) tournament, that’s all that it is. We already know what everybody does and they know what we do. We just have to be the one that is mentally tough at the right time and we need to convert.”