With his team trailing Ignacio High School by nine points at halftime, Mancos High School head coach Elijah Knepper did not mince words while loudly imploring players to be tough in Saturday’s Class 2A District 3 championship.
The result was a second-half turnaround as the Bluejays looked like a different team in the game’s final 16 minutes and came from behind to defeat the Bobcats, 54-50, in front of a spirited crowd at the Montezuma-Cortez High School.
“I’ll tell you what, as far as high school basketball games go, it doesn’t get much better than this,” Knepper said. “Credit to Ignacio, they played an outstanding game. ... The result was in doubt until the very end. We’re happy to have the (district championship) plaque going back go Mancos.”
While the turnaround was the overarching storyline of the thrilling contest, the comeback would not have been possible if the Bluejays hadn’t stepped up their physical intensity.
Among the most hard-nosed players down the stretch was Mancos senior Caden Showalter, who scored six of his 10 points in the second half while dominating the boards and controlling the paint.
“After (Knepper’s) speech at halftime, we just took some of our anger and frustration out on the problems that we had in the first half,” Caden Showalter said. “Instead of shutting down emotionally, we used our frustration to feed us.”
Sophomore Connor Showalter poured in 15 points, sophomore Evan Sehnert netted 14 points, junior Christian Cova chipped in nine, and senior Anthony Medina scored seven.
Ignacio was led by junior Brady McCaw, with 14 points, and senior Keegan Shurman, with 10. Senior Bryce Finn scored eight points, and senior Ocean Hunter scored seven.
After beginning the game in its 1-3-1 zone defense, which has given opponents trouble all year, Mancos trailed 21-13 after one quarter of play as Ignacio deftly moved the ball and created scoring opportunities.
The Bluejays’ difficulties continued in the second quarter as McCaw converted two fast-break layups and drained a long 3-pointer from the right wing to give the Bobcats their second-biggest lead, at 30-19.
Seemingly rattled by a knee injury suffered by senior Hunter Goodwin and on their heels, Mancos players retreated to their locker room trailing 32-23 at halftime. Over the next 10 minutes, Knepper did his best to right his team’s ship with what players described as an intense speech.
“I told them that we just had to be tougher,” the Mancos coach said. “We missed seven or eight layups in the first half. We just needed to be more physical inside in the second half, and we were.”
Players also increased pressure out of their 1-3-1 zone, which led to numerous turnovers by Ignacio’s guards, who had difficulty dealing with the Bluejays’ height advantage.
Benefiting from several Bobcats turnovers was Connor Showalter, who scored easy transition layups, including one with just over three minutes left in the third quarter that cut Ignacio’s lead to 38-34.
“I know that whenever we get a rebound (or a turnover) we are looking to push the ball,” Connor Showalter said. “That’s something that me and my team talk about.”
Heading into the final quarter trailing 41-36, the Bluejays pushed the ball and eventually tied things up, 41-41, when Sehnert drained a 3-pointer from the right wing with 4:54 left in the game and brought Mancos fans to their feet.
After four lead changes over the next two minutes, Mancos took the lead for good when Connor Showalter was fouled going to the basket and knocked down two free throws to give his team a 47-46 lead with about two minutes left.
After Ignacio junior Dylan Labarthe converted a transition layup to cut the Bluejays’ lead to 52-50 with 11 seconds left, junior Christian Cova stepped to the line with 8.3 seconds left and knocked down two free throws to ice the game.
“We knew we were the better team, we just had to play smarter,” the junior said. “I’m just happy that we pulled it together at halftime. We played our hearts out.”
After locking down its 18th victory of the season in 21 tries, Mancos will now get the opportunity to host one of eight Class 2A regional tournament next weekend in its newly renovated home gym. Mancos will host Hoehne at 6 p.m. Friday.
Knepper emphasized that his team will work to maintain its edge in practices this week.
“Hey, if we can’t stay focused this time of the year, it’s not going to happen for us,” he said. “We’re excited to stay home, that’s really going to help. We’re going to enjoy this and get back to work on Monday.”