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Panthers fall to GJ Central, will face pivotal week ahead

Montezuma-Cortez High School junior Miles Frost backs down a defender in a game against Grand Junction Central at M-CHS. (Ben Bradley/Special to The Journal)
M-CHS, Grand Junction Central revived old Southwest League rivalry

For plenty of fans stepping into the Montezuma-Cortez High School gymnasium on Saturday, seeing a Grand Junction school seated on the visiting bench felt like a blast from the past.

For a group of Panthers who had never faced off against Grand Junction Central in their playing careers, the contest came with plenty of unknowns. With a pair of programs looking to break above .500 this year for the first time in a while, the contest served as an opportunity to test their standing against a fellow up-and-comer.

Two former league foes brought the old Southwest League energy to “The Jungle,” with Central capitalizing on a strong start to down the Panthers, 65-47.

Montezuma-Cortez High School sophomore Tay Wheat attacks the basket against Grand Junction Central's Santana Martinez in a game at M-CHS.(Ben Bradley/Special to The Journal)
Montezuma-Cortez High School sophomore Caiden Leonard goes up for a lay-up in a contest against Grand Junction Central at M-CHS. (Ben Bradley/Special to The Journal)
Montezuma-Cortez High School senior Austin Wood rises for a shot against Grand Junction Central's Carson Kidd in a game at M-CHS.(Ben Bradley/Special to The Journal)
Montezuma-Cortez High School senior Isaak Lewis holds the ball away from Grand Junction Central's Amari Thomas in a game at M-CHS.(Ben Bradley/Special to The Journal)
Montezuma-Cortez High School senior Gabriel Crowled goes up for a lay-up in traffic in a game against Grand Junction Central at M-CHS.(Ben Bradley/Special to The Journal)

The Warriors (10-4, 1-1 6A/5A SWL) enjoyed a strong start behind an early burst from interior presence Braylen Scott. The senior accounted for six points in an early run that helped the visitors take an 18-7 lead through the opening quarter.

M-CHS senior Gabe Crowley produced a pair of and-one buckets while slashing to the basket, trying to break down the Warrior zone. Crowley scored all nine of his points in the first half.

M-CHS (5-5, 1-1 4A/3A IML) played Warriors twice, and occasionally three times per season when the Panthers competed in the 4A as part of the 5A/4A Southwest League. After the conclusion of the 2015-16 campaign, however, M-CHS shifted to 3A, and departed the league with the Western Slope’s largest schools.

Central, meanwhile, bumped up from 4A to 5A in CHSAA’s most recent alignment of the now-six classifications in basketball. Looking for their first winning season since 2016-17, the shift to a larger division came with its own set of challenges.

Their first year in the new level meant that the Warriors knew their interior game would be tested on a regular basis. Senior Santana Martinez helped provide the visitors with the consistency to help the Warriors dictate play in the paint.

As the Panthers tried to stop Martinez on the inside, the attention opened up the perimeter, where the Warriors knocked in seven treys, including three in a big second quarter.

Sophomore Caiden Leonard and senior Austin Wood responded in kind, making their own triples to keep the Panthers within 15 at the intermission, down 37-22.

After GJC scored the first seven points of the second half, M-CHS turned up the pace of the game, trying to disrupt the Warrior rhythm and climb back into the game. Wood took the Panthers on his shoulders in the third quarter, incessantly driving to the basket and earning trips to the free throw line.

Wood scored 10 of his team-high 15 points in the third quarter, as the Panthers trimmed a 22-point deficit to 14 entering the final eight minutes.

With the energy shifting toward the home team, sophomore Tay Wheat raised the pressure another notch. A pair of steals leading to easy buckets brought M-CHS within 10, down 50-40, as the decibel level climbed inside the gym.

However, Central responded with a pair of big baskets from Scott, who finished with 10 points, to restore a 14-point lead, and the Panthers wouldn’t get any closer than 12 the rest of the way.

Wood (15) and Leonard (10) finished in double figures for the hosts, while Wheat and Crowley added nine points apiece. Martinez led all scorers with 17 points, while Scott (10) and senior classmate Christian Miller (10) also had solid performances.

For the Panthers, in search of their first winning season since 2018-19, their brief departure from league play sets them up for a huge week in Intermountain League action. On Tuesday night, the Panthers will play a rescheduled contest against top-10 Centauri, with the girls contest tipping at 4:30 p.m., and the boys to follow at 6 p.m. Then, on Friday and Saturday, M-CHS will play host to Pagosa Springs and Bayfield, respectively, in a pair of important IML contests.