Basketball fans in Southwest Colorado could have expected the matchup between Ignacio and Montezuma-Cortez to be the best of the Southwest Classic. With the tournament championship on the line, the game lived up to the hype.
Montezuma-Cortez Panthers senior captain John Thomas Carver sank the go-ahead 3-pointer with 1 minute, 23 seconds left in the fourth quarter to complete a stunning 15-point comeback against the previously-undefeated Ignacio Bobcats. Montezuma-Cortez’s gymnasium erupted into pandemonium as Thomas Carver made his only made basket of the game.
The shot helped propel the Panthers (6-3) to a 70-66 win over Ignacio, and they claimed their second consecutive Southwest Classic championship.
“I know everybody has faith in me, and I was feeling it,” Thomas Carver said. “I told (M-CHS head coach Michael Hall) I would knock down the shot, and he gave it to me, and I stepped up.”
The Panthers were led by Titus Jackson, who scored 20 points. He would foul out with 1:39 remaining. Teagan Whiteskunk was Montezuma-Cortez’s second leading scorer with 17 points, but he would foul out prematurely late in the third quarter. Adrian Mark scored 17 points, all of which came in the second half, and he was a clutch with 7-of-10 shooting from the free-throw line.
Ignacio (6-1) was led Bryce Finn with 21 points, but 20 came in the first half. Finn was 3-of-6 from the free-throw line, which included a crucial pair of missed free throws that led to the Thomas Carver go-ahead shot. Gabe Tucson scored 14 points for IHS, while Ocean Hunter chipped in 10. Bird Red added five.
“(Thomas Carver) came in off of the bench and drilled that shot,” said M-CHS head coach Mike Hall. “We set that play up for him, and he’s a pretty good shooter. We knew that they’d be switching on Blake (Keetch) and Adrian (Mark). He knocks that shot down, and it changes the whole outcome of the game.”
Ignacio entered the game ranked No. 5 in the latest CHSAA Class 2A poll and came out firing, building a double-digit lead that it would hold throughout most of the game. But toward the end of the game, Ignacio head coach Chris Valdez said it was the inability to handle a full-court press and take care of the basketball that ultimately cost the Bobcats their first Classic championship.
“If we had one more guard who could handle a little bit better, we win that game easily and are 20 points better than that team,” Valdez said. “We’re 20 points better than them if we can put our team on the floor, and we got those mental mistakes. The fact of the matter is, our kids played their butts off who were out there. We made dumb mistakes that cost us the basketball game, and you’ve got to make free throws down the stretch. ... If your car is missing pieces, it ain’t gonna run right.”
At the start of the fourth quarter with Ignacio leading 53-45, it seemed the game was in control. Ignacio would stretch the lead to as much as 13 after Brady McCaw made a pair of free throws with 6:58 remaining. Hall had his team deliver a much more intense defensive performance after that, which forced the Bobcats into a number of mistakes.
“(My approach) was to just play smart and play as a team and keep on moving the ball, find the open shots and execute when we had a chance to,” Mark said. “We’ve been playing together since we were little, so we always know how to play together. We’re a bunch of strong-headed kids that never want to give up and never want to lose, so I guess that plays a factor.”
In the span of a minute and a half, Cortez stormed back with a pair of baskets from Jackson to cut it to 64-60 with 2:53 to go. Red answered with a pair of free throws to make it 66-60, but the Panthers made it a one-possession game via free throws after they were in the double bonus for most of the fourth quarter.
In the first half, IHS came out flying and got out to a double-digit lead with four 3-pointers at the end of the first quarter and would have seven by halftime. Ignacio led 24-13 after the first quarter and took a 40-30 lead into halftime.
In the second half, the Panthers came out with a sense of urgency and started the half on a 6-2 run to get back into the game. It slowly started to unravel for IHS after Ocean Hunter received a technical and would foul out early in the fourth quarter. At the end of the quarter, with IHS’ lead slowly slipping, Dylan Labarthe knocked down a 3-pointer with five seconds remaining, which set up the dramatic final fourth quarter.
Montezuma-Cortez will open 3A Intermountain League play on Friday in Pagosa Springs (5-3), while Ignacio will return to 2A/1A San Juan Basin League action when it hosts Dolores (3-5) at 7 p.m. Friday.