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Montezuma-Cortez posts historic win over Centauri

Montezuma-Cortez celebrates as the final horn sounds in their monumental victory over Intermountain League foe Centauri – their first-ever win over the Falcons in league play – Saturday, Feb. 3 at M-CHS. Ben Bradley/Special to The Journal
Strong fourth quarter lifts M-CHS to first-ever league win over Falcons

This wouldn’t be a close call. Nor would it be a moral victory.

The Montezuma-Cortez Panthers had endured too many of those over the years against the Intermountain League powerhouses – it was time to finish the deal.

When the final horn sounded Saturday to cement their historic achievement, a celebration a decade in the making enveloped the Panthers on their home court. For the first time since joining the Intermountain League in the 2014-15 season, M-CHS knocked off Centauri in girls hoops, with the Panthers outscoring their visitors 22-14 in the final frame to capture a 48-44 victory.

In their previous 22 tries against Centauri, the Panthers (7-6, 3-3 4A/3A IML) had put up their best effort and fallen short, often running into a team that had ambitions of making the 3A state tournament. Now, it’s the Panthers who have that level of ambition – and they now have their highest-caliber victory to add to their growing list of wins.

“We’ve shown everyone that we’re the team that we’ve claimed to be since the summer,” said junior Taylor Whited after the win.

A complete team effort turned a third quarter deficit into an advantage early in the fourth, as the Panthers raced on a 10-2 to take a 36-32 lead on the strength of three-pointers from sophomore Sariah Jackson and freshman Milah Begay.

Montezuma-Cortez junior Kalea Ogo eyes the basket as she gets set to sink the go-ahead free throw Saturday, Feb. 3 against Centauri. Ben Bradley/Special to The Journal
Montezuma-Cortez junior Taylor Whited looks to attack with the basketball against a Centauri defender Saturday, Feb. 3 at M-CHS. Ben Bradley/Special to The Journal
Panthers sophomore Sariah Jackson focuses while preparing to rebound a free throw Saturday, Feb. 3 against Centauri at M-CHS. Ben Bradley/Special to The Journal

Centauri (10-5, 4-3 4A/3A IML) rallied back, however, as Falcons junior Hannah Curtis made her seventh triple of the game to tie the game up at 44, shortly after it appeared as if Begay’s two free throws with just over two minutes left to put the Panthers up 44-39 might be enough to push the hosts over the finish line.

In front of a packed Jungle, the Panthers found one more answer.

Junior Kalea Ogo, whose defense and hustle keyed several big Panthers runs, stepped to the line with under a minute to play, and knocked in the go-ahead free throw.

After another steal, the Panthers went right back to the line, setting up senior Markylla Jones with a chance to capitalize on another area where M-CHS controlled the game – on the glass. Jones took a free throw miss and stuck it right back in, reaching double-figures in the process and all but sealing the win for M-CHS.

Centauri never got a tying field goal try on account of the stifling press, and M-CHS earned their moment to relish the magnitude of their achievement.

“We’d been working all season for this moment – and we did it,” said senior Kayce Tom. “We knew after we lost at their place, that we’d just need to play our game, and we could beat them.”

“It was our focus all week in practice,” said Jones. “We were telling ourselves ‘We got this’ – as long as we played ball together and were patient – we’re all so happy.”

In a full team effort, M-CHS overcame their leading scorer Savannah Haselroth being limited to a single free throw. Instead, while Haselroth played her customary strong perimeter defense, the Panthers scored from every other possible angle.

Junior Taylor Whited led the way with 12 points, including a buzzer-beating lay-in at the end of the third quarter that stirred the beginning of the comeback. Jones finished with 10, while Begay added nine and Jackson finished with seven. Ogo scored five while senior Kayce Tom and junior Reyaunna Jones added a field goal apiece.

M-CHS briefly led in the second quarter after an Ogo layup, but the Falcons reclaimed the lead on a pair of Curtis threes, and would maintain the advantage throughout the third quarter to build a lead as large as six.

“Even when the momentum swung their way, we kept our heads up, kept pushing, and played together,” said Whited. “We play for each other, and that changed the whole dynamic of the game.”

The extended Panthers run in the fourth quarter turned the tide, and placed the Panthers within striking distance of their first-ever top-three finish in league play as members of the IML.

“In that fourth quarter, we picked each other up, telling each other ‘Let’s go,’” added Tom. “We’ve been at the bottom of the mountain through our four years, but we’ve been climbing each year – and it’s all been from our team chemistry.”

“We’re all in,” said Jones. “We couldn’t have done this tonight without everyone being bought in on teamwork.”

An opportunity to break another lengthy in-league streak arrives on Monday, as the Panthers play Alamosa in a rescheduled contest from Friday, taking on the Mean Moose – who have beaten M-CHS 21 straight times – for a 4:30 p.m. tipoff in The Jungle on Feb. 5. The contest can be heard on local radio station 98.7 FM KRTZ and on krtzradio.com.