Panthers show strong maturity

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

Alex Lopez manages to pass to a Panthers teammate, as he is knocked over in the Monticello game Saturday of the Four Corners Classic.

By Bobby Abplanalp Journal staff writer

The Panthers trailed 45-33 at the end of the third quarter last Saturday afternoon.

It was the second-place game of the Four Corners Classic at Ron Wright Memorial Gym.

The visiting Miyamura Patriots made the drive from Gallup, N.M., and were in control.

Montezuma-Cortez High School just came off a heartbreaking overtime loss to Monitcello (Utah) in the morning. The Panthers were without their coach, as Cory Gropp was ejected after two technical fouls in the second quarter.

The Panthers were without starting point guard Alex Lopez, who injured his ankle against Monticello.

It appeared the Panthers were also playing without hope.

However, the fat lady was anything but singing.

As ESPN college football analyst Lee Corso famously says, "not so fast, my friend."

M-CHS roared back in the fourth quarter behind junior Brackin Whiteskunk and sophomore reserve Konnar McGee.

One by one, the shots were falling.

The Panthers suffocating full court press defense resulted in turnovers.

Just like that, an inspired M-CHS squad was on an 18-4 run and possessed a 51-49 lead.

With less than a minute remaining, the Panthers second furious late rally of the day looked as if it may come up short yet again.

Miyamura's Ryan Begay launched a 3 well beyond the arc that went in. The Patriots were back on top 52-51. But the Panthers didn't panic.

McGee stormed down court with the ball in the waning seconds. Assistant coach Dusty DeBoer didn't call timeout.

He didn't need to.

McGree drew a foul after he was tripped up with three seconds left. It was a hard foul that drew intense ire from both teams.

With the tension mounted greater than Everest, McGee calmly swished the first free throw to tie the game.

"I was nervous for sure," said McGee about stepping to the free-throw line at the end. "I knew after I made that first one, it was either going to go into overtime or we were going to win it."

A couple bounces, a deep breath and a flick of the wrist, McGee's second from the charity stripe went in to give the Panthers the lead back at 53-52.

Miyamura's last second desperation heave was no good and M-CHS escaped with a 1-point thriller. McGee was mobbed by his ecstatic teammates.

"I knew my team was going to make a stop," McGee said. "I was just really happy I had a chance to do that for my team and we got a win out of it."

It was a character building victory for the Panthers (2-4), who have started the season slow adjusting to Gropp's up-tempo system. But with each game, M-CHS has taken positive steps forward.

"We've been trying to tell the boys, 'We have all the talent in the world.' It's all about mentality," Gropp said. "The boys showed today that they're starting to catch on to what we're talking about. They're starting to believe in themselves."

Whiteskunk led all scorers with 20 points.

Miyamura (4-3), a 4A school, crushed 3A Bayfield (0-3) 63-39 Friday before losing to tourney champ Monticello (5-0), 50-33.

M-CHS faced 1A Monticello (No. 5, Salt Lake Tribune) Saturday morning and the Buckaroos were on top early. Led by hot shooters Gunnar Hollingsworth and Austin Maloy, Monticello built a 30-23 halftime lead.

The Buckaroos kept the Panthers at bay with a 41-33 at the end of three.

M-CHS stormed back.

Tenacious defense and clutch 3-point shooting by Whiteskunk got the Panthers back in the game.

Trailing 47-43 with 47 seconds, Randy Haley grabbed the rebound off a missed 1-and-1 by Maloy. Haley gave the ball to Whiteskunk and the junior banked in a 3 and drew the foul.

Whiteskunk unfortunately couldn't pull off the improbable 4-point play, missing the free throw. But the Panthers weren't dead yet.

Hollingsworth hit two foul shots to put Monticello up 49-46 with 11 seconds remaining.

Gropp called timout.

The plan?

Give it to Whiteskunk.

The junior delivered again from downtown to knot the game at 49 with six seconds to go.

"Coach just told me to set a screen. Then Briston (Walker) set a screen for me and I pulled up for 3," Whiteskunk said. "Today, my 3-point (shot) was just hitting, so I was going for it. I had to hit that 3."

Hollingsworth's baseline jumper clanked off the rim and the Four Corners foes went to overtime.

But it was all Buckaroos in the extra session. Monticello out-scored M-CHS 13-7 in overtime and won 62-56. The Buckaroos took care of Bayfield in the next game, 55-43, to win the Four Corners Classic.

M-CHS dispatched Bayfield Friday night, 65-55, behind 19 points apiece from Whiteskunk and Briston Walker.

The Panthers will play in the Palisade Rotary Club tourney on Friday and Saturday before going on Christmas break.

"I think if we can get another two wins and even up our record, (it) would be just perfect going into the Christmas break," Gropp said.

M-CHS takes on host Palisade High School (3-2) Friday at 6 p.m., before facing Cheyenne (Wyo.) South (0-4) on Saturday at 11:30 a.m.

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