For three quarters, the Montezuma-Cortez Panthers were unable to break away from the Navajo Prep Eagles on Tuesday evening.
It didn’t seem to matter what the Panthers threw at them – the Eagles hung around.
Luis Perry and Austin Bayles each scored five points in the first quarter, but Navajo Prep junior Nachae Nez tallied nine of his game-high 18 in the same frame to start the second with M-CHS up by just five, 17-12.
The Eagles pulled within three in the second quarter before Daniel Fernandez connected on a three-pointer and scored on a breakaway for an individual 5-0 run, and then Aron Engel stuck a tough pull-up jumper to extend the Panthers’ lead.
Jasen Engel pushed the lead to nine with a three-pointer, and later, Coby Baer blocked a shot and took the loose ball the length of the court for a layup to give M-CHS its biggest lead of the half, up 11 with 2:40 remaining.
Still, M-CHS turnovers and free throw opportunities for the Eagles allowed Navajo Prep to climb back in it. And after the Eagles connected on a triple as time expired, the two teams went into halftime tied, 34-34.
“Our intensity was just horrible in the first half,” head coach Mike Hall said after the game. “Athletically, we were better than they were, but they were able to stick around because their intensity was so high and ours was so low.”
As a shot in the arm, the Panthers started the third quarter in a 1-2-2 trap.
“We talked about it at half,” Hall said. “We said, ‘We’ve got to pick the tempo up, get our momentum up, get our intensity up, so we’re just going to start trapping.’”
While the pressure did produce steals for breakaway scores, at times, it also surrendered buckets.
Occasionally, M-CHS defenders would gamble in passing lanes, and once the Eagles penetrated the first layer of defense, they found themselves with 3-on-2 or 2-on-1 advantages in the paint, and their quick interior passes created open looks.
Still, the Panthers’ change in tempo and pressure ended with a third-quarter advantage, and they were up by seven to start the fourth, 51-44.
That’s when the levee finally broke.
The Panthers continued to trap – even jumping into a full-court press – and they used a 14-4 run to build a 17-point lead.
“We started trapping and that 1-2-2 trap works well for us,” Hall said of the fourth-quarter run. “Once the boys get excited, we’re hard to stop.”
The Panthers outscored Navajo Prep 23-6 in the final frame, and with around a minute remaining, they put the game out of reach for good.
Quanah Casey knocked down a three-pointer, Baer scored on a fastbreak, and Aron Engel hit his second triple of the contest. Then with a 23-point lead and 20 seconds left, Baer connected on 1-of-2 free throws to seal the 74-50 win for the Panthers.
Nine M-CHS players scored in the contest, with Perry’s 15 points leading the way. Fernandez followed with 11, Aron Engel scored 10, Jasen Engel and Bayles each added nine, Baer chipped in seven, Obed Simental had six, Cody Canzona finished with four and Casey scored three.
Hall spoke of the benefits of having a balanced scoring attack following the win.
“Everywhere across the board we’re really equal, and it’s hard to pick out a guy that’s just that much better than everybody because we’re all the same,” he said. “It’s nice, because some guy is going to have an off night, and there are eight other guys that can pick him up.”
The win moves M-CHS to 3-3 on the season, with upcoming home games against Centauri on Friday at 8 p.m. and against Ignacio on Saturday at 4:30 p.m.