Flagstaff Eagles head coach Nick Walton never doubted his team had what it takes to close out a nail-biter.
After dropping their final three games of the regular season by a combined score of 11 points, the No. 22-ranked Eagles found themselves in another tight situation late in a game. This time, they came out as the winners, beating the 11th-ranked Coconino Panthers, 60-58, Friday thanks to aggressive plays under the rim in the closing minutes of the 4A Conference state tournament play-in round.
"I knew being in those tough games were going to benefit us, even though we were on the short end a few times," Walton said. "I am so proud of our guys, they kept their composure. I think it's been good to be in those tough situations because it paid dividends for us tonight."
Despite struggling throughout the night at the foul line, finishing up at 15 for 35 as a team, the Eagles drained just enough free throws in the closing minute to claw back from an eight-point deficit in the fourth quarter and win the first-ever state tournament meeting between the two teams. Ending his night with a game-high 27 points, Ramsey Penza made his way to the line with 3.8 seconds remaining in the game, sank one of his two shots and gave Flagstaff the 59-58 lead it would not relinquish.
Struggling to close out the final minutes of the game with three of their starters on the bench, including Grand Canyon Region Player of the Year Emilio Esquivel, Coconino's chances of pulling off another buzzer-beating win against the Eagles fell short when an inbound play with 3.8 on the clock ended up one of many costly turnovers down the stretch.
"We did the best we could, we had a lot of different people in there and we didn't execute so well," said Panthers head coach Mike Moran, winner of the region coach of the year award. "It makes it hard, going deep in the bench."
With three seconds to go, Flagstaff's K.P. Kortsen missed his free throw but Penza grabbed the offensive board to get right back to the line and clinch it.
Walton said not controlling the boards has been the team's "Achilles heal" at times, so to see the strong play around the rim overall impressed the coach and Penza.
"It was great and I think we need to bring that for all games. I think if we play like that, we'll be fine," said Penza, whose fourth-quarter dunk snapped a Coconino 7-0 run that had the Panthers ahead 54-46 with 5:30 left in the game. "We played a great game, but we have got to play another one."
Penza had an 8-for-15 night at the foul line and his 27 points came just short of tying his season-high 28. Troy Yazzie tallied 10 points for the Eagles, and his drive for a layup with 20 seconds left to play tied it up at 58. Kortsen added seven points, and was just 3 for 11 at the foul line, missing five free throws in the final quarter.
"We should have had our free throws, we work on them everyday, and I don't know if it was the student section or just the nerves, but we knocked down the ones we needed to in the end," Walton said.
Coconino, which ended its turn-around season with a 16-4 record and a region title, was led in scoring by Harding Eddie's 14 points. Coming off a victory over the Eagles in which he hit the buzzer-beating 3-pointer, Eddie sank one of his two total 3s Friday during a Coconino 5-0 run in the third quarter that tied it at 36-all.
Esquivel gave his team its first lead of the night late in the third quarter with two made free throws, Eddie found Brennan Motes open on an inbound pass for a bucket inside that put Coconino ahead for the second time 47-46 and the Panthers won the third quarter 21-16 after using a 17-12 second stanza to head into halftime down 30-26.
Flagstaff, which improved to 11-9 with the victory, used a 10-0 run in the first quarter to take an early 12-2 lead. Coconino, battling illness, injuries and nerves, slowly clawed back into the game, using a 7-0 run in the second quarter to make it 22-18 after trailing 20-9 at the start of the frame.
Tristen Wilson, who notched 13 points, got his own putback to snap the run and end Coconino's scoring drought. Esquivel and Abel Harris contributed six points apiece.
"That's a champion battle right there, that's a 15-rounder," Moran said.