The Panthers were coming on strong.
Daniel Fernandez’s slick no-look pass to baseline cutter Cordell Baer had re-energized the Montezuma-Cortez crowd and given the Panthers a 50-49 lead with 4:45 to go.
For Bayfield, a share of the 3A Intermountain title was on the line, and high-scoring Ryan Phelps was on the bench with four fouls.
Bayfield head coach Jeff Lehnus gambled and re-inserted Phelps.
The 6-foot-4 Phelps racked up six straight points and later sank three free throws – giving him a game-high 20 points.
Linchpin Panthers junior Jasen Engel fouled out with 2:03 left, and Montezuma-Cortez (7-12, 4-6 IML) trailing closely at 57-52. Wolverine sophomore Hayden Farmer (11 points) drilled the resulting two free throws, greatly stilling the wind in the Panthers’ sail.
Bayfield pulled away, winning 66-57 and their share of the league title with Alamosa.
Lehnus would later talk about the tough Panthers team and crowd.
“Their home, their senior/parent night ... they’re a good team, you know? We had to beat them at the buzzer at our place, so ... they came out better than we did,” Lehnus said. “But championship teams find a way.”
M-CHS coach Michael Hall talked about how the Panthers stepped up.
“It’s hard to lose Jasen,” said Hall. “He’s a leader on the floor, very good defender, very good offensive player and ... a hard kid to lose.”
“I was proud, though. Micah Hightower had a fantastic game, Quanah Casey knocked down some big shots,” Hall said “I was proud of the kids to step up.”
Three-pointers by Hightower (12 points) and Casey (10) helped the home team build a 12-4 lead in the first quarter, which stood at 13-7 after the eight inspired minutes. Junior Obed Simental (11 points) drained a trey to start the second, but he and Engel were both curtailed by three fouls, making the visitors’ comeback, achieved by sophomore Turner Kennedy’s buzzer-beating triple to tie the game at 32, more manageable.
Still, the Panthers were anything but ready to break.
Wanting to send Hightower, Casey, Coby Baer and Braden Keetch (like Engel, held to six points) into the coming IML District Tournament at Bayfield on a high note, the Panchers shook off the Wolverines’ 8-0 run in the third quarter and entered the fourth trailing 46-40.
“We wanted to come out very up-tempo and attack,” Hall said. “And we did. We came out and played very well at the start — knocking down our shots, penetrating real well, you know? It looked good.”
Casey’s second cut Bayfield’s lead to 46-45, and Simental sank a mid-range pull-up with 6:16 left.
Bayfield junior Dax Snooks responded with a clutch three from the near corner. Baer came back with a free throw. Then, Fernandez dished to the younger Baer, setting up Bayfield junior Phelps’ sprint to the finish inside a roaring Panther gym.
The Panthers helped themselves at the line, knocking down 15 of 18 free throws in the game. Bayfield (13-6, 9-1) cashed 16 but needed at least 10 more tries to do so.
Both coaches looked ahead to the tournament.
“I’m proud of our hustle. And our defensive play right now – we’re playing pretty high on the defensive end,” Hall said. “I’m looking forward to the tournament. We’re ... starting to peak, so I’m excited.”
And that surge was clearly visible to Lehnus, knowing he might have to face the surging Panthers again.
“The first-round game — it could be them!” he said. “So we wanted to make sure we came and played hard here tonight ... try to make a statement. We have to be prepared.”