Thu Mar 14th, 2019
Special to the Drum
After just one game this winter, Justa Whitt knew she had something special in Avaleena Nanaeto.
“That girl is quite a speedster; I just love her,” said Ignacio’s head coach, beginning her second stint with Lady Bobcat Basketball with a 46-35 win over Ordway-based Crowley County at the Limon Invitational.
“What a hard worker too; I can’t ask any more from our freshman … Did a good job to help us through.”
That refrain never changed as IHS again devastated the 2A/1A San Juan Basin League during the regular season, and earned regional-hosting duty by thrashing Telluride and Dolores at the District 3 Tournament.
“She’s coming right along … finding her groove, and that’s what we want from her,” Whitt said after a late-season showing. “She’s faster than lightning; I told her she has to find a speed control … but we’re working on that.”
And with the final seconds of a four-minute overtime ‘quarter’ ticking away inside a deafening IHS Gymnasium Saturday afternoon, March 2, it wasn’t surprising that Nanaeto still had plenty of wheels to sprint past visiting Wray’s defenders and lay in Ignacio’s last basket of the 2A-Region VIII Tournament.
It certainly didn’t shock longtime Lady Eagle boss Dr. David Reed.
“We had to adapt to their quickness. Even when we were ahead 5-0 at the start of the game, Ignacio’s defensive intensity was really high, really aggressive, and they were playing really quick,” he said. “I knew we’d have trouble with that, and I knew we’d have trouble scoring … the whole game.”
And though height – specifically, 6’1” senior Morgan Smith and 5’11” sophomore Taby Jones – was making right against IHS on the defensive end, as it had for the Lady Eagles the previous night in a 54-23 rout of Burlington, it wasn’t winning WHS outright the title fight.
Looking for more scoring themselves after a second-half rally carried them past upset-minded Rangely 42-31 in the tourney’s first semifinal, the Lady ’Cats quickly countered Wray’s aforementioned opening burst and emphatically won the first quarter, 13-9, via sophomore guard Jayden Brunson’s buzzer-beating three-pointer off the right wing.
Having held Smith and Jones to a combined one field goal and four points, plus being able to pressure the duo into committing three personal fouls during the initial eight minutes, things would only get better for Ignacio.
A trey by junior forward Makayla Howell increased the home team’s advantage to 18-11, and Howell then deftly dropped in a hook shot with 6:26 left before halftime, forcing Reed to burn a timeout trailing by nine points. Despite five points in the period from Jones, the District 2 Tournament’s third-place crew couldn’t close the gap until late; IHS freshman guard Monika Lucero canned a triple with 3:15 left, keeping Ignacio ahead by nine, 23-14, before the well-traveled guests crept back to 23-18 at intermission.
“They just jumped on us on defense, and we kind of had a slow start,” said Smith, committed to NCAA Division II Regis University. “I think we just had to match their intensity.”
And match it they did, though it took until the final frame for the Lady Eagles to at last pull even on the scoreboard. Able to mount not one, but two incredible rallies, WHS whittled IHS’ lead down to just two points, 27-25, ending the third quarter – via an Abby Shay bucket resulting from a Smith block, and a Paige Brown free throw.
Resolute until the very end, win or lose, Ignacio confidently began the fourth quarter with a 5-0 burst including a three by sophomore guard Ebonee Gomez and a Nanaeto two. But back-to-back Shay strikes and a hoop by Jones suddenly had Wray within a point, 32-31.
IHS senior guard Kiana Valdez responded with a defiant three-pointer, but with 3:11 remaining, Lady Eagle senior Bridgette Redden, benched for a good chunk of time by a nose bloodied on an earlier rebound attempt, barged inside for a basket, Ignacio foul, and bonus FT attempt.
Twenty minutes younger and an inch shorter than twin Bailey, Redden missed the ‘and-one,’ but had successfully inspired her side; Jones would convert a layup 26 ticks later and at last, the score was level at 35-35.
“Oh my gosh, you have no idea!” she said excitedly afterwards. “It’s just an exciting game when something happens like that. You come in clutch, and your team’s behind you a hundred percent – it was definitely a re-boost for us.”
“And in the end,” she continued, “it all came down to making our free throws and clutch shots. Being a team, that’s what it’s about.”
But the home team appeared just as up to the task with a trip to State in sight; Gomez knocked down a 12-footer to regain a two-point lead, and Ignacio soon found themselves in position to all but seal the deal as Nanaeto stepped to the foul line for two tries and just 20.8 regulation seconds remaining.
Used to playing in fast-forward mode (her ten points had complemented Howell’s team-high 11 against RHS), a sudden pause unfortunately didn’t advance the Lady ’Cat cause; neither charity toss was successful, and after the Lady Eagles grabbed the rebound, Jones managed to get fouled herself.
With only 0:11.6 showing on the game clock, Jones coldly cashed both shots and the game would go into overtime knotted up at 37-37.
“Coach pressures us in practice; we shoot a lot of free throws,” said Smith. “He says games come down to free throws and layups, and today was definitely that.”
“We simplified our offense a little bit, in that we wanted to isolate the posts a little better, and I thought Ignacio did a great job to double down, triple down,” Reed said, acknowledging primarily the countermeasures of Howell, sophomore Shelcie Gosney and junior Larissa Gallegos. “Then we just tried to kick out, get a better look that way.”
“We got down seven in the fourth, and I just told them ‘Don’t stop fighting. Don’t worry about what’s happening, a call here or a call there,’” he added. “And perseverance, resiliency … to the next play, they did that.”
“I definitely think we had some nerves for … just the anticipation of what was going to happen and how we were going to do, you know?” said Whitt.
Finishing with a game-high 15 points, Jones (who’d netted 14 in the second semi) then struck first in OT, putting Wray up 39-37. Both teams plotted to work the clock in order to limit their opponents’ possessions, but after Brown – seeking a fourth CHSAA Class 2A State Championships appearance, along with Smith – fouled out with 1:49 left, Shay (10 points) came through with two essential FTs and just 0:50.2 remaining.
Likely the biggest worry facing Ignacio, Burlington or Rangely coming in to the two-day tourney, Smith then all but clinched victory with two more freebies and only 0:38.5 between the Lady Eagles and Loveland’s Budweiser Events Center.
“They started with intensity, we matched it there at the end and just overcame it,” said Smith, held to just six points by the Lady ’Cats after booking 11 against BHS. “I’m just so happy to make it to State four times because not many are fortunate to do that. I’m blessed with this team – and the teams I’ve had the last three years – to get this opportunity.”
“Even with our differences and … different contributions to this team, we still ‘bring it’ together,” said Redden, appreciating IHS Gymnasium’s State-like energy and volume. “We’re definitely in for … battling our way to the top, making sure Colorado knows that the Wray Eagles are here to win it.”
“In the locker room after the game, I told them that their job is to now work on their individual skills from now until next season to get us in the place we need to be,” said Whitt. “If we get the chance to be in this same position next year, we’ll be ready.”
“I’m sad for our seniors who will be leaving us,” she continued, recognizing Valdez, active reserves Fernanda Tavares and Reyna Cruz, as well as injured reserve Rosie Concepcion, “but we’ve got a whole new group who comes back next year, and we’ll start building on that.”
“We never give up,” said Howell, who scored a team-high nine points. “That’s the kind of team we are, and we’re going to play until somebody tells us to stop. That’s our job. We played hard today. It just came down to a few missed shots and the little mistakes … and, in the end, it was the finishing that killed us.”
Brown and junior Morgan Jones each scored four points, while the sisters Redden each chipped in two for WHS, which improved to 19-3 overall prior to competing at the penultimate, three-day tell-all.
Gomez totaled seven points for Ignacio (16-7), while Nanaeto finished with six. Gosney fought for four, while Brunson, Valdez and Lucero each finished with their respective long-range makes. Gallegos and sophomore Charlize Valdez each scored two points.
“The effort that these girls gave today was undeniable, and they played their hearts out,” stated Whitt. “Everybody had their moment – which included myself; I had a little ‘rattlebrain’ at the end, as well – but we haven’t had a chance to play a game where we’re tight all season.”
“Credit to Wray for making the plays they needed to, but I’m so proud of how we played…all year long.”