By Mila Besich-Lira
The Superior Junior High Panthers entered their season tournament with a 7-2 record including two close losses to Eloy and San Carlos.
“We knew we had a great opportunity to avenge both those losses on our way to our second straight championship,” explained Coach Luis Navarro. “First we had to get past our first round opponent in Mtn. Vista, who we had defeated earlier in the year 23-15 in our first game back from winter break.”
Mountain Vista came out ready to play and it appeared the Jr. High Panthers had not yet woken up. Mtn. Vista jumped lead after the first quarter 6-4 and it seemed like the Panthers could be in for a rough one.
This continued throughout the first half and the team trailed 11-9 at halftime.
“Going to the locker room, we talked about having to wake up or everything we worked for was about to be taken away from us by a team who wanted it more,” said Navarro.
In the third quarter, the Panthers finally woke up with help from a fire alarm that went off during the game. They outscored Mountain Vista 10-2 in the third quarter to give them a 19-13 lead and take control of the game and grab a 28-20 victory.
The team was lead in scoring by Austin Navarrette with 10 points and Gage Cruz with 8 points, who went 4 for 4 from the free throw line. Edgar Pacheco added 6, Stevie Denogean added a 3 point shot and Joseph Diaz-Gonzalez made 1 of 2 free throws to add a point.
After this victory the team was on to a semifinal matchup with San Carlos.
The game started out quick with Jalon Gomez getting the scoring started with 4 of his 6 points coming in the first quarter. San Carlos came out shooting as well and at the end of the first quarter they had a slim 9-8 lead.
In the second quarter, defenses seemed to show up as each team only scored 2 points each and the Panthers went in at the half leading 11-10.
In the third quarter, both teams battled back and forth with several lead changes. “We seemed to be in trouble when our high scorer for the game,” explained Navarro. “Gage Cruz, with 11 points, suffered a deep thigh bruise and needed some time to recover.”
Marcos Bueno came off the bench and provided the spark they needed, scoring 7 straight points to end the third, which gave the Panthers the needed boost to pull away from the Braves.
Cruz returned to go 4 for 4 on key free throws down the stretch as they maintained the lead.
Austin Navarrette contributed 8 points and Jesse Lopez 2. The Panthers were able to pull away by outscoring San Carlos 24-15 in the second half to defeat them 35-25.
With this game behind them, the Panthers were on their way to the Championship game against Eloy who had defeated Globe in the other semifinal game.
“We had new found energy to start the game against Eloy,” explained Navarro. “Seeing the players come out focused and ready to play gave me some confidence.”
The Panthers came out fast with Gage Cruz hitting a three pointer and a 2, and Edgar Galindo hitting two free throws to give them a 7-5 lead at the end of the first quarter.
In the second quarter, Eloy switched from a zone defense to man-to-man and the Panther’s struggled to make adjustments. Austin Navarrette scored our only 2 points for the quarter and they went in at half trailing 11-9.
The game quickly became all about defense. The referees were letting the players play and both teams being great defensively kept scoring very low.
In the third quarter, the Panthers held Eloy to 6 points but only managed 4 to trail 15-13 with only one quarter left in the Junior High Basketball season.
In the fourth quarter, Eloy extended their lead by a few points and the Panthers trailed 21-15 with about two minutes to play.
The Panthers stepped up the urgency and Gage Cruz converted a layup getting fouled and making the free throw.
Following an Eloy free throw, Stevie Denogean added two points and they trailed 22-17 with about thirty seconds to go.
After a rebound, Austin Navarrette added a three pointer with less than five seconds to go and the Panther’s trailed 22-21.
Following a timeout, and needing a miracle, the Panthers were unable to get a steal and Eloy ran out the clock to take the championship.
The Panthers failed to convert at the free throw line, making only one of seven free throws. Cruz lead scoring with 10, Navarrette added 7 with Denogean and Galindo contributing 2 each.
Coach Navarro had two great seasons with eighth grade team.
“As painful as it was to lose such a close game I’m proud of each one of my players for the success we have had as a team the past two seasons in seventh and now eighth grade,” he said. “This is an excellent group of young men and their success in junior high basketball in only the beginning as they move on to high school.”