Pacing the Panthers bench on a repaired right patella tendon, coach Michael Hall found himself with a tougher, mental predicament late in Saturday afternoon’s game against Moab-Grand County.
Rallying back from nine points down early in the fourth quarter, Montezuma-Cortez, which had lost its 11-point halftime lead in the third, pulled back to 65-63 with senior forward Austin Foxworth’s second three-pointer of the quarter.
Coming immediately after Grand County senior Brayden Schultz caught and converted an alley-oop layup, momentum appeared to favor M-CHS in the “Rumble in the Jungle” finals.
“We were finding the open guy, running our offense good, finding any little openings the defense gave us,” Foxworth said, “and we capitalized.”
“Halftime, you know, we came out and we were just a little bit down,” said Hall. “Then the fourth quarter came around and we moved the ball better, quit turning it over, shot the ball real well — it just turned into a real good game.”
So good that it pressed Hall into a split-second decision even he wasn’t crazy about making.
He’d be able to instruct his team on what to do to go ahead with a basket or prevent the Red Devils from running the clock if they rebounded an M-CHS miss. But a timeout might interrupt his team’s momentum.
Hall called for the timeout, and the officials gave it to him just before sophomore guard Teagan Whiteskunk swished a go-ahead three off the right wing with 0:49 remaining. It didn’t count.
After the timeout, Montezuma-Cortez managed a tying basket, then fouled Grand County to save time. Schultz, who booked a game-high 18 points, hit one of two free throws, and Alec Williams hit two — giving him 15 points and extending Grand County’s lead to 68-65 with 7.1 seconds left in the game.
Panthers hustled the subsequent inbounds pass across midcourt in just two seconds and called timeout. But although Engel got an open look at a game-tying three-pointer, his buzzer-beater was just off-line.
“Teagan, he had a good first half,” said Hall, noting the guard’s first 13 points (he’d burned Basalt High School for 13 in the first quarter, and 15 before halftime on Day 1 of the tourney).
“It was good to play them again,” said Whiteskunk, who scored a team-best 17 points against Grand County after dropping a team-best 22 on Basalt on Friday night. “Last game (a 71-57 loss last year), we didn’t come out focused. We came out focused this time.”
“We played very well, came out ready to go,” Hall agreed.
Grand County also came ready to play.
Grand County senior Masen Ward received the opening tip and hustled it in for a layup seconds into the championship contest. Whiteskunk and senior guard Obed Simental answered immediately, each nailing a three and setting the tone of the game. Senior reserve guard Kolby Waltman also hit a three-pointer, and M-CHS (3-3, 0-0 3A Intermountain) led 17-15 after eight minutes.
The Red Devils (6-1, 0-0 UHSAA 3A Region 15) managed to re-tie at 21-21 via a Schultz trey, but two Whiteskunk free throws with 5:27 left in the second quarter triggered a 17-6 closing rush in which Grand County junior Tyson Horton was hit with a technical foul.
“We attacked more and just played our game, our regular game,” said Whiteskunk.
Williams, though, began the third quarter with a three-pointer, and followed it up with a score to cut the M-CHS lead to just 38-37. Junior center Cameron Hoppensteadt, kept in check during the first half by Panthers Jasen Engel (15 points) and Cordell Baer (11 points), then gave Grand County the lead with a basket inside.
With 1:46 left, Hoppensteadt cleaned up a Ward miss from outside, drew a foul on Waltman, and converted the free throw to increase Grand County lead to 49-44. The quarter ended with Schultz crashing through the M-CHS defense for a hard layup and seven-point lead.
“Honestly, we just calmed down and started playing the game of basketball,” Schultz said, explaining Grand County’s 24-point charge in the third-quarter. “Just started breaking down their zone and playing as a team instead of just driving and turning the ball over.”
“You know, our team’s always been a team that battles,” said Williams, alluding also to Grand County’s comeback, 56-48 win over Ignacio on Friday night. “We always have problems coming out hot early, but what we do best is stick together and battle strong – really try to finish the game harder than we started.”
Ward finished with eight points, Hoppensteadt seven and senior Josh Jones five for the Red Devils. Foxworth’s 10 points gave Hall four players in double figures. Waltman chipped in seven, but Simental was held to just three after scoring nine on Friday in the Panthers’ 78-58 rout of Basalt.
Devastating near the basket, Engel piled up 21 points against Basalt — trailing only Whiteskunk and Basalt senior guard Justin Henderson (24 points) for in the game. Foxworth registered 16 and Baer six before fouling out with 4:12 left in the fourth.
In Saturday’s third-place game, Ignacio High School had four players with 10 or more points as it blasted Basalt 81-52. The win took Ignacio to 3-1 overall, and 2-0 in the 2A/1A San Juan Basin League. Basalt went to 1-6 overall, and is 0-0 in the 3A Western Slope League.
Montezuma-Cortez next competes on Jan. 5 in the Four Corners Tournament in Bayfield.
“We’ve got Ignacio and Durango,” said Hall, “and that’s always a big deal for the boys. So I think they’ll be ready to go.”
“You know, the boys are real positive right now, and they’re playing very well,” he continued. “They haven’t played basketball at this caliber for a while, so I’m really pleased.”
This article was reposted on Dec. 19 to report that Jasen Engel took the final shot.