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Panthers girls basketball closing in on league’s top tier

Montezuma-Cortez High School junior Cyriah Begay brings the ball up the floor against Centauri in this file photo. Saturday, she drained five 3-pointers in a 17-point shooting display against Bayfield. (Ben Bradley/Special to The Journal)
Win over Bayfield, big rally against Pagosa Springs highlight busy week

If seven quarters from the Panthers busy week of IML play serve as any indication, Montezuma-Cortez is inching closer to the upper echelon of the league.

Domination of Bayfield on Saturday afternoon, combined with an electric second half against perennial power Pagosa Springs, appears to have the Panthers steering toward a big second half of the IML schedule.

The Panthers downed Bayfield 39-24 to complete the regular season sweep of the Wolverines, just one night after the Panthers nearly completed an epic comeback against the Pirates.

Trailing by 24 at the half against Pagosa Springs, the Panthers (4-7, 2-3 4A/3A IML) clawed all the way back to within single digits, before running out of time in a 51-44 defeat. In both contests, the Panthers showed their ability to be clinical at the offensive end, while using their full court pressure to disrupt the opposition.

All the while, junior Cyriah Begay has turned into one of the blossoming stars in the IML, adding another double-digit outing to her resume, draining five 3-pointers in a 17-point shooting display against Bayfield – a day after tallying 10 against the Pirates.

“It’s all about getting the girls to believe that they can play at that level against anyone,” said fourth-year head coach Brad Wright after his team’s recent surge.

M-CHS wasted no time making sure that Saturday’s encounter with Bayfield wouldn’t go down to the wire. The Panthers posted a shutout in the first quarter, taking a 12-0 edge thanks to four points from junior Kayce Tom.

Sophomore Taylor Whited and junior Savannah Haselroth made life difficult for the Bayfield guards, forcing a bevy of backcourt turnovers that led to scoring chances.

From there, Bayfield (2-10, 0-6 4A/3A IML) crept back to within five points with sophomore Renae Foutz providing a spark for the visitors, but the rally was short-lived. After leading 18-10 at the break, M-CHS scored the opening eight points of the second half.

Begay’s three-point onslaught reached its peak in the third quarter, as the junior nailed three triples in quick succession to balloon the lead above 20 points, and the Wolverines never truly threatened after that. The large margin allowed the Panthers to Panthers to have their bench close the contest out, with sophomores Kalea Ogo and Adilynn Martinez each scoring to provide the final margin.

“The girls are enjoying it – they’re a pleasure to coach,” said Wright, “and that builds the confidence that we’re wanting to translate into on-court success.”

Whited’s eight points complemented Begay’s shooting showcase, while Tom added six points and junior Markylla Jones scored four. Foutz finished with top honors for Bayfield with nine points.

“The balance just keeps improving,” said Wright, as the Panthers rely on various players to give the team an offensive lift. “We’re seeing different players stepping up every game.”

As case and point, Haselroth, scoreless against Bayfield, tallied 11 points the night before in the Pagosa Springs rally. The Panthers also put together a great second quarter in a 75-35 loss to 3A power Centauri on Tuesday, playing even with the Falcons thanks to strong shooting and feisty defense.

The Panthers continued their recent run against Bayfield, collecting their fifth straight win in the series, while also giving the orange-and-black some momentum as they head to the San Luis Valley to take on Alamosa (Friday) and Centauri (Saturday), looking to battle hard against a pair of the state’s elite. The next home game for M-CHS awaits on Wednesday, Feb. 8, when the Panthers host Dove Creek.