Fouls, late drought cripple ’Cats in Cortez

To the horror of Bayfield head coach Klint Chandler, right, Ignacio’s Ocean Hunter (32) bulls-eyes a three-pointer over Hunter Bayles (10) inside Montezuma-Cortez H.S. Gymnasium Friday, Jan. 10.
Ignacio head coach Chris Valdez, left, and Bayfield boss Klint Chandler enjoy a punch line prior to the teams’ battle Friday evening, Jan. 10, inside Montezuma-Cortez H.S. Gymnasium.
Ignacio’s Gabe Tucson (3) fires a successful three-pointer over Montezuma-Cortez’s Teagan Whiteskunk inside M-CHS Gymnasium Saturday, Jan. 11.
Ignacio’s Bird Red (23) yanks down a rebound against Montezuma-Cortez inside M-CHS Gymnasium Saturday, Jan. 11.
Special to the Drum | Joel Priest
Special to the Drum | Joel Priest
Special to the Drum | Joel Priest
Special to the Drum | Joel Priest

Fourth-quarter lead fizzles in tourney finale

As easy as victory seemingly was coming to the Bobcat boys in the 2020 Four Corners Southwest Classic’s championship clash, it ultimately slipped through their claws at an even faster pace.

“We were coming off of a big win, just feeling hot,” junior guard Brady McCaw said, referencing the previous evening’s 67-48 rout of 3A Bayfield, in which Ignacio drilled almost as many three-pointers (13) as committed fouls (14).  “Hit a couple good shots we’d been practicing all week, but … kind of fell apart at the end.”

And that was summarizing things relatively gently.

“I mean, we just … made dumb mistakes that cost us the basketball game,” head coach Chris Valdez said bluntly.

Able to again reign terror upon an opponent from beyond the arc, two treys from junior forward Bryce Finn and two from sophomore guard Gabe Tucson had helped IHS blast out to a 24-13 lead on meet-hosting Montezuma-Cortez in one quarter.

“I haven’t really been able to shoot and I’ve been thinking about it all season, pretty much,” Finn said, after posting a game-high 18 points against Bayfield, and prior to netting 19 versus M-CHS – with four threes giving him an impressive seven during the contests.  “But I’m going to get my shot … back in rhythm, and I knew one of these games it was going to break out.”

“We got in foul trouble and we didn’t know who we were going to match up with,” said Tucson, who’d total five threes during the Jan. 10-11 spectacle, a clutch four coming against M-CHS.  “I just had to step up, do my part, contribute to the team.”

With 5:30 remaining in the second, senior forward Bird Red, who’d polished off BHS with a rainbow triple as the final buzzer sounded, all but put Montezuma-Cortez down for the proverbial count with a three-pointer – increasing Ignacio’s lead to 32-17 – immediately after Panther senior standout Titus Jackson missed an energizing baseline dunk at the other end.

Consecutive Finn treys helped IHS recover from a threatening 11-0 Panther run, and the big junior sent the ’Cats into the locker room leading 40-30 after converting a breakaway layup set up by a Dylan Labarthe steal from M-CHS’ Blake Keetch.

And despite a technical foul whistled against senior forward/center Ocean Hunter early in the third quarter for his reaction to an infraction (Keetch had been T’d early in the first for a backboard slap while a Bobcat shot fell inside the rim), Ignacio allowed the Panthers to approach no nearer than 42-36 before ending the stanza with gutsy triples from junior guard Joe Garcia and an unassuming Labarthe – from out of the far corner, no less – at the buzzer.

Tucson then immediately sank IHS’ 11th trey starting the final frame, rebuilding the visitors’ lead to 56-45, and the Bobcats had M-CHS dead to rights shortly thereafter when Panther senior Teagan Whiteskunk, one of the 3A Intermountain League’s most feared shooters, fouled out – though not before booking a valiant 17 points – with a whopping 6:58 remaining.

McCaw coldly canned both resulting free throws, giving Ignacio a 13-point lead normally dooming to most 2A/1A San Juan Basin enemies – particularly if any of those systems had lost a Whiteskunk-like cog.

Panther head coach Michael Hall, however, had already seen another senior exude confidence.  Confidence which proved life-saving, and which manifested in a successful three-point play when McCaw fouled out eight ticks after Whiteskunk.

“These boys will never give up.  I’ve said that many of times.  And Adrian came into that huddle and the senior leadership stepped up right then; he said, ‘We’ve got to go, boys!’” Hall stated, referring to senior guard Adrian Mark.  “He took over Teagan’s spot and said, ‘We’re going to win this game.’”

Entering the fourth quarter with just six points and playing with three fouls, Mark would finish with an inspiring 17 points, his efforts helping free up Jackson for repeated drives to the basket – which themselves became somewhat easier when Hunter (10 points, 16 versus BHS) fouled out with 5:21 left.

Keetch hit one of two FTs at that moment, but Garcia countered with a vital three-pointer to keep IHS out front by double digits, 61-51.  Mark answered with a two-point bucket, and Keetch followed with a surprise trey.  Jackson cashed a hard take to the hole not long after, bringing Montezuma-Cortez back to within four points, 64-60.

Red responded with two free throws – his four previous tries in the quarter were unsuccessful – but as fate had in store for Ignacio, ranked No. 5 in the Class 2A Boys’ poll entering the weekend, they’d be the guests’ last points.

With two FTs and only 1:43 remaining, Mark sparked a once-improbable, victory-stealing 10-0 scoring burst highlighted by a far-corner three from reserve guard J.T. Carver only seconds after Jackson (20 points) fouled out with 1:39 to go.  The sophomore’s only bucket during the battle put M-CHS – amazingly outgunned 12-3 from long distance – up 67-66, and Red (7 points) then fouled out with 1:18 left.

“That’s a big shot.  We set that play up for him knowing … they were going to be switching on Adrian and Blake,” recalled Hall.  “And he knocks that shot down, just changes the whole outcome.”

Mark would bury two more FTs with 0:43.6 left to provide the Panthers three-point leeway, and after Finn was unable to equalize with one of two tries from downtown, Keetch sank one of two charity chucks – the home side finished 19-of-35, compared to the invaders’ 12-of-23 – with 16.4 ticks left to secure an epic 70-66 win.

“You know, we didn’t do what we had to do to win.  Which is not foul, make our free throws, take care of the ball,” said Ignacio head coach Chris Valdez.  “I mean, we just fell apart.  And it was that … we didn’t have our ball-handlers.”

“Brady got in foul trouble … sits the entire game – he maybe played five or six minutes at the most – and … Triston, he’s out, our second-best ball-handler and penetrator, you know?  If we had one more guard who could handle the ball a little bit better, we win that game easily.”

But that’s not saying the available backcourt players didn’t try.

Senior guard Keegan Schurman finished with four points and Garcia six after McCaw was benched with just three in the wake of a 10-point game against Bayfield.  Tucson, meanwhile, nearly mimicked Mark’s breakout showing with a 14-point performance of his own.

“Gabe steps up, does a fantastic job for us!  As a sophomore, it’s an unbelievable job,” Valdez proudly declared.  “Keegan and Joe, they filled the spots on the wings …. We just weren’t deep enough, guard-wise.”

“You’ve got to make free throws down the stretch,” he added.  “Then we’ve got … mental mistakes, and maybe there were fouls and maybe there weren’t … but we don’t comment on those.  The fact of the matter is our kids played their butts off that were out there.”

Keetch finished with seven points for the Panthers (6-3, 0-0 IML), and senior reserve Giovanni Carta chipped in four.

“I’m not going to take anything away from Ignacio, because they’re good.  They can shoot the ball well and, you know … it was a fun game,” said Hall.  “Right now, we’re on top; we’ve just got to keep going.”

“They’re a really good-shooting team, they’re a really fast team – they kind of mimic our game, pretty much,” Finn said.  “Obviously it’s … one of our games where we were like, ‘We’ve got to … give it everything we have.’”

Taking their first loss of the 2019-20 season, the Bobcats slipped to 6-1 overall and will look to bounce back – and hopefully improve to 3-0 in the SJBL – Friday night, Jan. 17, at home versus Dolores.

“We’ve got to keep looking forward,” said McCaw.

“It was a learning experience,” Tucson said.  “We’ve just got to keep our heads up and keep moving.”

Defeated 64-45 by M-CHS – paced by Whiteskunk’s 26 points – in the other Day 1 semifinal, Durango (7-6, 0-0 4A/5A Southwestern) recovered on Day 2 and beat Bayfield (1-8, 0-0 IML) 45-34 in the Classic’s third-place game.




1.Yuma, 2.Ault Highland, 3.Fowler, 4.Denver Christian, 5.IGNACIO, 6.Limon, 7.Mancos, 8.Edwards Vail Christian, 9.Holly, 10.Sedgwick County (Julesburg/Ovid Revere).  Others receiving votes – Fort Collins Heritage Christian, Sanford, Lafayette Dawson School, Greeley Union Colony Prep, Wray, Center, Peyton, Wiggins, Crested Butte, Crowley County (Ordway).

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