Lady ’Cats roaring into Loveland, Great 8 Girls on 15-game tear after regional wins

Ignacio junior Ebonee Gomez (23) looks to drive around Sargent’s Jozlynn Moreno and penetrate the three-point perimeter during 2A-Region VIII Tournament semifinals action Friday, March 6, inside IHS Gymnasium.
Ignacio junior Charlize Valdez (12) fights through midcourt pressure presented by Rocky Ford’s Abi Snyder (right) and Teagan Mendoza-Werner (rear) during 2A-Region VIII Tournament championship play Saturday, March 7, inside IHS Gymnasium.
Ignacio senior Makayla Howell (1) hoists high the 2A-Region VIII Tournament championship award amidst celebrating teammates following the Lady Bobcats’ 43-28 defeat of Rocky Ford Saturday afternoon, March 7, inside IHS Gymnasium.
Ignacio senior Larissa Gallegos eagerly cuts into the net during the NCAA March Madness-style salute to the girls’ – and boys’ – regional-tournament championship victories Saturday, March 7, inside IHS Gymnasium. The Lady ’Cats defeated Rocky Ford 43-28 at home for the 2A-Region VIII title, while the Bobcat boys won 2A-Region IV over Mancos on the road.
Ignacio senior Makayla Howell, right, and sophomore Monika Lucero attempt to keep their emotions in check while observing the team’s NCAA March Madness-style net-cutting ceremony in the wake of a 2A-Region VIII Tournament championship win Saturday, March 7, inside IHS Gymnasium over Rocky Ford. Having won the 2A-Region IV title on the road earlier in the day, the Bobcat boys would cut down the opposite net after the girls had completed their celebratory task.
Joel Priest | Special to the Drum
Joel Priest | Special to the Drum
Joel Priest | Special to the Drum
Joel Priest | Special to the Drum
Joel Priest | Special to the Drum

Her team less than an hour from tip-off in the 2A-District 3 Tournament finale against explosive Ignacio, injury-wracked Margaux Lovely – benched this time by a damaged ACL in her knee – sought to find underdogs Telluride a little extra Leap Day fortune, metaphorically speaking, in her pre-game cereal snack.

“I guess you could say there’s a ‘message’ there,” Lovely laughed, digging into the ‘Lucky Charms’ box.

Ignacio senior Makayla Howell (1) attempts a shot between Rocky Ford’s Lily Hancock (left) and Meghan Saltzman (23) during the 2A-Region VIII Tournament championship Saturday, March 7, inside IHS Gymnasium.

“Well, we might need a lot more than that,” quipped assistant coach Anna Robinson, seated next to the junior and observing the size of the player’s extracted handful.

Just when you’d think San Juan Basin League opponents had tried everything … .

Undoubtedly having seen that Feb. 29 result – Ignacio 71, Telluride 2 – the vaunted Rocky Ford squad, regular-season runners-up in the Santa Fe League and then runners-up in District 6, knew that should both RFHS and IHS pass their Region VIII Tournament semifinals tests six days later, their championship-game mentality would have to manifest itself through hard-nosed (pun intended) junior Teagan Mendoza-Werner.

“I’ve had my nose broken seven times,” she said, explaining her transparent face shield. “Six times in basketball, once in volleyball. But I’ve only needed to have surgery on it twice.”

Putting it bluntly, the Lady Meloneers (Melonettes, perhaps?) knew nothing could be permitted to slow them down or take them out of their game Saturday afternoon, March 7, inside a near-capacity IHS Gymnasium if they were to replicate Wray’s 2019 overtime stunner.

The Lady Bobcats, however, emphatically made sure history wouldn’t be repeated.

After striding past 25-seed Sargent, 51-29, the previous evening in the State Championships’ Round-of-32, No. 8 Ignacio rode the play of junior guards Jayden Brunson and Charlize Valdez to a 43-28 victory over Rocky Ford and a spot in the ultimate tourney’s double-elimination ‘Great Eight’ round.

“The loss last year in overtime … was such a disappointment,” said head coach Justa Whitt. “So to come in today and play a game like they played, and to not really have too much ‘worry’ that we weren’t going to get the win … felt really good.”

“We did it our sophomore year, and we get to go back this year,” senior forward Larissa Gallegos said. “I think it really means a lot to the community; it’s just a lot of love and support from them – the stands were packed today! – and that means a lot [to us].”

A Brunson three-pointer off the left wing had given the Lady ’Cats (18-5 overall) a 5-2 lead at the end of an unnerving first quarter, but what 9-seed RFHS had feared was about to come true. Having drained three treys after halftime against the Lady Farmers (9-14), Brunson again ignited – and, to Whitt’s relief, much earlier.

“Today I said, ‘Don’t wait until the second half to do that. Please?’” joked Whitt. “And she came out ready to fire it up; that was great. She started knocking them down and that’s what started us off.”

Valdez’s first triple increased IHS’ advantage to 12-2 with 4:30 remaining until intermission, while Brunson’s second and third makes rapidly swelled it to 18-4. Rocky Ford’s Nevaeh Rodriguez then managed to convert both ends of a 1-and-1 trip to the free-throw line with 2:50 left, but Brunson promptly buried her fourth long-ranger to re-inflate the home team’s cushion to a comfortable 21-6.

“We were just kind of lax, and just … lazy. I’m glad we finally got it together,” Gallegos said. “After [Brunson] made those few we got really excited. … We just knew we had to finish the game.”

Having already established containment of Lady Meloneer junior Meghan Saltzman, who cashed three threes the night before as part of a 15-point performance helping Rocky Ford rout 24-seed Kremmling West Grand 54-25, Ignacio sensed that only one enemy could hurt them.

Streaking up and down the court against the Lady Mustangs (13-11) to log what ended up being a regional-best 23 points, RFHS junior guard Abi Snyder went off for nine points during the third quarter, fueling a 12-1 run (which included Saltzman’s only three-ball) and shouting after each basket.

Ignacio sophomore Avaleena Nanaeto hits the deck along with Sargent’s Jeni Johnson in pursuit of an ownerless ball during 2A-Region VIII Tournament semifinals action Friday, March 6, inside IHS Gymnasium.

“In the locker room we just talked about how we needed more energy, and how we needed to find their shooters on defense,” Snyder said, recalling the Lady Meloneers’ halftime chat. “For a while, we found them pretty well … and we just decided we needed to forget the first half.”

“If we stayed out on the Saltzman girl, we could stop her. From last night we could see that – and we knew this from before – she would make a couple, but … her percentage was not very high. So we knew that wasn’t an extreme factor but we did have to keep an eye on it,” said Whitt.

“We knew from the get-go that we had to stop Snyder. We knew that she was the key to the whole team,” she continued. “We had Charlize and Avee [Avaleena Nanaeto] switch off on her, and I think we even had Jayden on her a couple times because we were getting tired! But … to stop her from being successful, I think it rattled her.”

Valdez sank a crucial trey to somewhat stabilize IHS’ crumbling pad at 27-22, and would drive in for a late two-pointer to leave the score standing 29-22 entering the final frame.

“That really was the key – to attack the gaps, try to get them to draw away from what they normally do,” said Whitt. “I kept telling them, ‘We have to keep driving those gaps and pull their defense apart. Make them collapse.’ Those guards up top – Snyder and Saltzman – they were looking for a steal on a pass, and so we really had to work that so they didn’t. They could have been off to the races several times if we weren’t careful.”

One senior’s summary of the skipper’s final instructions was much more succinct.

“She basically said we needed to get our lives together,” said a grinning Gallegos. “We needed to play harder, get around and stop them.”

And Gallegos, not Brunson nor Valdez to the visitors’ surprise, all but did RFHS in with a crippling three-pointer – rebuilding Ignacio’s lead to 36-22 – launched from directly in front of a raucous Lady Bobcat bench. Rocky Ford boss Mark Henson quickly called a timeout with 5:44 still remaining, but IHS steadily began milking the clock, aware they wouldn’t have to produce much more offensively.

“That’s what I told them in our last timeout: ‘We don’t have to score. Unless you’ve got a wide-open layup, we don’t have to shoot it,’” Whitt recalled. “And be patient, just use our time to our advantage … for those things we’ve been working on all season for games we’ve been close in.”

“It’s really good to see them getting it and being able to do that.”

Following up her 12-point output against Sargent, Brunson finished with 16 points, matching Snyder – recipient of the game ball for her two-day play, as well as to commemorate her 1,000th varsity point, achieved against IHS – for the game-high.

“I’d been kind of keeping track, but I wasn’t really too focused on it; I was just trying to be a team player and help us win,” said Snyder.

After booking a game-best 13 against SHS, Valdez again reached double figures with ten versus RFHS (21-3), while Gallegos’ count improved from four to ten. Having provided the Lady ’Cats their first-quarter spark against Sargent with a quick six points, Nanaeto would total 13 in the wins while junior Ebonee Gomez totaled six, but senior Makayla Howell (four points against Sargent) went scoreless against Rocky Ford before fouling out with 2:26 left.

Rodriguez managed five points in defeat, but Saltzman was held to just three and Mendoza-Werner zero.

“Last night was great. We were kind of stuck in mud early in the game and it kind of went back and forth, but once we got out of the mud we ran. Ran, and ran away,” said Henson. “Tonight … the first half was tough, but the beauty part was we felt like we played good enough defense to keep us in the game.”

“We chipped away at it, stayed confident … . But it turned out the other way. Ignacio started to play tighter defense, started hitting more shots, and that’s the way it ends.”

Re-seeded No. 7 for the ‘Great Eight,’ Ignacio’s first foe inside the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland was to be 2-seed Holyoke (22-1) at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 12. Results against the Region I champs, whose only loss to date was by four points against Limon back on Jan. 18, were unavailable at press time.

The winning crew would advance to face either No. 3 Rye or No. 6 Sanford on Friday the 13th, while the losing bunches would fight for survival on Day 2 at 11:45 a.m. On Day 3, the girls’ fifth-place game will tip off at 4 p.m. in Greeley inside Bank of Colorado Arena at the University of Northern Colorado’s Butler-Hancock Athletic Center, but the third-place (10 a.m.) and championship (7 p.m.) features will still be played at the BEC.

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