The Montezuma-Cortez High School boys basketball team began its season in earnest Monday night with a 59-46 victory over a sluggish Durango High School squad.
The game at DHS was originally planned as a scrimmage, but after scheduling changes for both teams, it counted as a regular season matchup. Regardless of whether it was a scrimmage or not, Cortez (1-0), a team that qualified for the Great 8 of the state playoffs in Class 3A last season, was ready from the opening tipoff.
For Durango (0-1), it was a tough way to start the season. Last year, the Demons’ offense struggled with teams that were quick in transition, and Monday, the Panthers’ fast offense was too much.
Junior forward Sam Johnson led the way for Durango with 13 points, and Anthony Flint and Jordan Woolverton each had 10. Cortez was led by Titus Jackson with 21 points, and Teagan Whiteskunk, who had a big first half, ended the night with 15 points.
Durango head coach Alan Batiste thought his team executed well but committed far too many turnovers. DHS had 39 on the night and gave up 25 offensive rebounds.
“The 0-for-8 start and the 14 turnovers in the first (quarter) hurt us,” Batiste said. “That’s a lot of empty possessions, and we can’t do that against good teams or they’ll make us pay. We’ve got enough talent, and the boys are playing enough and this group is really tight friendship-wise. But again, it’s the first game. Cortez was super quick, and it comes down to execution.
“You’re not going to give yourself that many opportunities to win when you commit that many turnovers. Great teams capitalize off of that. In reality, Cortez could’ve put up 85 points. I told the boys to stay positive, and I think we can bounce back.”
Flint said he has noticed much more continuity in the group compared to last season and thinks it can be a big factor moving forward.
“I think we just have a togetherness about this group,” Flint said. “It doesn’t really matter who scores; we don’t have any extracurriculars this year, and it really feels like a team.”
The Panthers built an early 12-0 lead. It was not until Haezen Mestas scored with 50 seconds remaining in the opening quarter that the Demons got on the scoreboard. Woolverton scored a basket and was fouled with three seconds to go. He made the free throw, and the Panthers led 16-5 after the opening frame.
“For the opening game of the season, there were some jitters, but I thought we came out strong in the first quarter,” Panthers’ head coach Mike Hall said. “I thought Teagan Whiteskunk was good tonight. We knew he’d get a lot of the pressure, but he’s a natural scorer. He knows how to put the ball in the hole and is good at it. He’s got a good cast in Titus Jackson, Adrian Mark, who were good tonight. We’ve got all the hustlers who are ready to do the dirty work down low, and they showed up tonight.”
Whiteskunk led the Panthers early on with 10 of the team’s 16 in the first quarter. He got help from Jackson, who chipped in four.
In the second quarter, Flint got on the board with a pair of free throws and two more baskets to give him six points. The Demons outscored Cortez 10-7 in the frame but still trailed 23-15 at halftime.
In the second half, Durango fought back through senior Martin Cuntz, who scored a three-point play to get it within seven. But the Panthers would not go away, as Jackson continued to pace Cortez with six timely points. Cortez held a 37-28 lead heading into the final quarter.
In the fourth, DHS’ Johnson came up clutch on a number of occasions to keep Durango in the game, as he scored seven points. Flint hit his first 3-pointer in the fourth quarter, but it was too little too late.
Johnson, who was a swing player between junior varsity and varsity last season, added 15 pounds of muscle over the offseason, and it showed. He was fearless when he entered the paint, diving after every loose ball. Flint described him as “a workhorse.”
“Last night was a tough night for us, but I think it’s going to be good in the long run because we’re already getting laser-focused,” Johnson said before Tuesday’s practice. “We’ve got a good group of kids, we’re all very athletic and all love to play with each other. The vibes this year are really good. It’s a fun locker room and we’re all working hard. Although we haven’t had a major trial, we’re really good at picking each other up, not getting on each other’s backs and are smiling in the locker room.”
With 5:40 remaining, Cortez was able to extend the lead to its largest of the night at 15 after JT Carver and Andrew Wood hit back-to-back 3-pointers to put the Panthers comfortably ahead.
“It was a great win,” Hall said. “We’ve got to clean up the messes that we’re making and were kind of sloppy, but I’m excited to see what happens.”
Even after the loss, Batiste was able to take positives from the game He said the camraderie of the group will only continue to grow.
“We do have a lot of returners,” Batiste said on Tuesday. “Our seniors have played every level, from C-team, JV and varsity. There’s not a lot of varsity experience there, but it came with the territory last night. The defense turned them up and you saw the inexperience in that case, but you also saw some bright spots that I like about the squad. I see the continuity and the friendship, and that’s one thing I saw from the 2016 team that made a really deep run. They have the same qualities as that group.”
The Demons will hit the road for the Marv Sanders Tournament in Farmington. The Demons will open at 5 p.m. Thursday against Shiprock.
Cortez will play Las Animas at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Mountain Top Tournament in La Jara.