There aren’t many better venues to put on a show than under the Friday Night Lights.
The Intermountain League has become one of the standout leagues in the midsize divisions of Colorado high school hoops, and there’s hardly a better place to find yourself than in a gym for a big-time February tussle on a Friday night.
Montezuma-Cortez High School knew the importance of their first of a regular season-wrapping home-and-home against Ignacio, with each team fighting to secure a spot in the field of 32 in the state’s 3A bracket. The Panthers rose to the occasion Friday in front of a packed house in “The Jungle,” celebrating their three seniors before scorching the visiting Bobcats, 63-36, with a hard-nosed defensive performance.
Junior Caiden Leonard fired home six three-pointers in the close contest-turned rout, helping the Panthers pull away in a pair of decisive stretches in the second and early fourth quarters. The first sprint helped the Panthers overturn a 12-9 deficit on their way to a 27-17 halftime lead, while their second flurry blew the game wide open in the first three minutes of the fourth quarter.
Ignacio jumped out to a 9-4 advantage behind the interior presence of senior Gabe Fox, as the lanky post poured in seven points in the opening minutes, forcing the Panthers to call for time and adjust their defensive approach.
“We had to start fronting him,” said Panther head coach Mike Hall of the change – turning to freshman Asher Bennett to do the job, “he’s (Bennett) fast and physical, and we knew that’d be one of our options to try to stop Fox.”
Once the shift was made, the entire balance of the game tilted toward the home team, as M-CHS (6-11, 3-6 4A/3A IML) completely erased the post attack for the Bobcats, forcing Ignacio head coach Chris Valdez’ squad to make perimeter shots.
For a brief stretch early in the third quarter, the ‘Cats found their mark from the outside, but after the Panther lead shrank to five midway through the third quarter, M-CHS answered with some big buckets of their own. Leonard drained three triples in quick succession in the third to build the lead back to double figures, and Ignacio would come no closer the rest of the way.
“I’m so proud of Caidin,” said Hall, “he’s had some ups and downs this year – but he was able to fight through it and really broke out tonight – this is the way he’s capable of playing.”
With the Bobcats (7-10, 2-6 4A/3A IML) having to respect the perimeter, the Panthers turned their defensive over-pursuit against them, finding open lanes to the basket, which junior Tay Wheat and senior Easton Hartsoe exploited in a second half scoring flourish that put the game away.
The comfortable margin allowed the Panthers to fully enjoy the celebration of their three seniors – Hartsoe, Gael Garcia, and Raul Soto – who each received an ovation from the home crowd as they left the floor.
“Gael and I have been here since we were freshmen,” said Hartsoe after the win, “and Raul has been with us for three years, and so it feels really good to celebrate this with these guys.”
Wheat finished the night with 14 points to go along with Leonard’s game-high 23, while three Panthers –Bennett, junior Ridge Hathale, and Hartsoe – tallied a half dozen points apiece.
Hathale kept the Panthers in the contest early, scoring all three of his field goals in the first quarter to weather through the pressure of the early Bobcat run.
“Ridge knows where to be on the court, he has great vision,” added Hall, “and he knows what his role is on the court – he doesn’t try to do too much.”
Fox led the visitors with 12 points, while senior Phillip Quintana added six, but after the Bobcats scored 16 points in the third quarter to hang in the game, Ignacio only scored a lone field goal in the fourth as the Panthers pulled away.
“This kind of win keeps the energy going,” mentioned Hartsoe, “it’s definitely a boost of confidence – we left it all on the floor – and we were able to work together well tonight on both ends of the floor.”
On their last home game of the regular season, the Panthers fell to Pagosa Springs on Saturday, 61-48, but not without a stern battle. The Panthers kept Pagosa within sight all afternoon, but ultimately fell as the Pirates went on a 15-9 fourth quarter run.
The win over Ignacio, however, maintains the Panthers inside the top 32 in the state’s 3A CHSAA Seeding and Selection Index, while setting up an important pair of contests in the final week of the regular season. On Tuesday, Feb. 13, the Panthers visit Mancos for their annual grudge match, while Ignacio awaits their chance at revenge two days later – this time in Bobcat territory.