Scoring 10 of his team’s final 12 points, Coconino’s Harding Eddie led the way to his school’s first crosstown rivalry win since 2013 as he stunned the Flagstaff Eagles in their own gym with a game-winning corner 3-pointer at the buzzer Friday night.
With 13 seconds left on the clock after K.P. Kortsen put the Eagles ahead by one, Emilio Esquivel drove the ball down the court for the Panthers and into a collapsing defense before slipping the ball out to Eddie.
While Flagstaff’s Ramsey Penza tried to close back out on Eddie, the Coconino senior released the ball quickly and dropped it through the net for the 49-47 victory.
“Clutch performance, clutch assist,” said Panthers head coach Mike Moran. “Harding and (Esquivel) have been buddies for a long time, they work off of one another. Harding has been spectacular down the stretch showing a lot of leadership.”
The shot ended the Panthers’ 11-game losing streak to their crosstown rivals and capped off their ascent to the top of the Grand Canyon Region this season. Ranked No. 11 in the 4A Conference entering its regular-season finale, Coconino likely locked up a home game in the play-in round of the state tournament, set for Friday.
Meanwhile, No. 17 Flagstaff suffered yet another close loss late in the season, as the Eagles enter Tuesday’s regular-season finale against No. 23 Washington winners of just one of their past four games. The four losses came by a combined 12 points, all to teams likely to host a 4A playoff game.
“They know that at this point in the season it is win or go home,” said Eagles head coach Nick Walton. “We are ready for the challenge, I feel confident that we are going to be playing good basketball. The last five games have been decided by three points or less, it just goes one way or another.”
A 10-0 run by the Eagles, spanning nearly four minutes between the third and fourth quarters, appeared to be leading to a season sweep of the Panthers. Walter Downs connected on a 3 at the top of the arc with about 6:50 remaining, with Penza hitting a 3 of his own while drawing a foul 40 seconds later.
However, a 2-of-6 run from the free-throw line prevented Flagstaff from pulling ahead by more than nine, leaving the door open for Coconino’s comeback.
Trailing 43-34, Esquivel ended the scoreless run on a layup with 5:40 remaining, beginning a 15-4 run for the Panthers spanning the remainder of the game. While the basket was Esquivel’s final one of the night, as the senior finished with 15 points, he assisted three of Eddie’s final four buckets.
With the lead cut to 43-39 after Eddie’s third 3-pointer of the night, Esquivel came away with a steal and hit Eddie on a fast break for a layup. Flagstaff answered with a layup on the other end before Joram Watson completed a three-point play on a putback of a missed long-range shot.
Flagstaff missed a shot, but regained possession by trapping Esquivel on the baseline and proceeded to eat away at the clock. Cutting it down from 1:54 to 44 seconds by holding on to the ball, Flagstaff eventually turned it over to Esquivel again, who heaved a pass to Eddie for a score thanks to a goaltending call, giving the Panthers a short-lived, one-point lead with 37 seconds remaining.
“He does too much at times, you know that, but you have to let him go,” Moran said of Esquivel. “He gets in too deep sometimes, but he is the heart and soul. We have so many great players, but he is the guy.”
Kortsen, who finished with 11 points for Flagstaff, put the Eagles back in front on an off-balance, one-handed layup at the baseline with 20 seconds left. The Panthers inbounded the ball before calling a timeout with 13.8 remaining.
“He said, ‘What are we doing coach?’ and I said we are going to spread the baseline and you are going to attack the basket,” Moran said of the plan for Esquivel in the final timeout. “I said, 'Look for Harding in the corner if you don't see anything,' and he just plays.”
From there, the senior guard brought the ball up the court before attacking into Flagstaff’s defense.
“It’s so hard, I just wanted to be a hero, but it doesn't always work that way. I believe in him because he can stroke it, so I just let him do him,” Esquivel said of Eddie, who finished with a game-high 20 points.
For Flagstaff, the final sequence played into what it expected to be Coconino’s plan, as it had been all night.
“We knew Emilio was tough tonight, he created so much for them and we tried our best to keep it out of his hands,” Walton said. “We were half a second late getting out on the shooter. But how else do you want a rivalry game to end? It comes down to the final shot, it doesn't get much better than that.”
The final moments of the game followed a similar script to the rest of the night. Flagstaff’s nine-point lead with about six minutes remaining stood as the largest for either side throughout the game, with the team’s tying on four occasions in the first half before Coconino ended with a pair of baskets to take a 27-23 halftime lead.
A 6-0 run for the Eagles midway through the third quarter, with Penza scoring four of his team-high 15 points, put Flagstaff back in front and triggered a series of lead changes. Trading baskets back-and-forth, the teams ran up five lead changes in just three minutes before the Eagles closed out the third quarter with a late layup to start their run.
With few fouls called in the game, Coconino hit just 2 of 4 from the free-throw line while Flagstaff finished 4 of 10 and hindered by its final quarter, missing four in the span of two minutes.
“This region is tough, we won the region one day at a time,” Moran said. “We knew this was going to be very difficult. We will give them tomorrow off and then Sunday, and we will practice and play in the state tournament for the first time in how many years? It is a great story for all of us, it really is.”