The second half didn't go so well for the Coconino Panthers the first time they ran into the St. Mary's Knights back in December at the Pepsi Holiday Tournament.
It was different this time.
Jada Golding scored a team-high 18 points, Kortnee Begaye added a season-high 15 and the Panthers didn't allow the Knights a second-half rally on the way to opening the 4A Conference state tournament with a 55-33 rout Tuesday at Coconino High School.
The sixth-ranked Panthers never trailed in the first-round game and took a commanding lead in third quarter by outscoring the No. 11-ranked Knights 12-3 in the frame. St. Mary managed just one field goal in the third stanza to go with a free throw that opened the quarter's scoring.
It was the kind of effort in the second half Begaye and the team wanted to have in their final home game of the season.
"I'm not sure if it was one thing, it was just everything that led up to that moment" of pulling away in the third quarter, said Begaye, who hadn't scored in double digits since Dec. 21 when Coconino toppled the Washington Rams 62-31. "We all had good things going -- Kaylee was getting assists, Jada driving and getting assists, we had steals left and right. Everyone combined to get the flow going."
Begaye worked her magic in the paint as the night went on, scoring two points in the opening quarter, three in the second, four in the third and six in the fourth. Her putback of her own missed shot came during a Coconino 8-0 run in the third quarter and put her team ahead 30-18 before the Panthers ended the surge on a bucket from Kaylee Begay, who finished her night with nine points.
With the Panthers unable to get the offense going until two and half minutes into the second half, it looked as if the Knights would have a chance to again turn things in their direction for a comeback victory. Taylor Hansen found Begaye to get Coconino on the scoreboard in the new half with 5:35 on the clock, however, and the Panthers jumped out to the 30-18 lead a little more than a minute later.
"I have to give a shoutout to our younger-level boys teams -- they've been in the gym with us three days last week, really pushing and challenging us," said Panthers head coach Martin Reyes.
The Panthers will need to keep the offense flowing in order to keep up with their next opponent, the Flagstaff Eagles, who held Coconino to 9-for-39 shooting in the regular-season finale.
Leading the Knights to the 39-37 Pepsi Holiday tourney win over the Panthers last time the teams met with 22 points, St. Mary's senior Lanessa Palencia led all scorers on Tuesday with 19. Palencia, with the team's leading scorer and rebounder in Beyonce Jordan on the bench the entire night, could not keep her team alive this time around. The Knights ended their season with a 12-8 record that included a play-in victory over Peoria.
Now at 17-3 overall after having avoided the play-in round, the Panthers led by as many as 27 points against the Knights a couple of times in the fourth quarter on Tuesday. Recording four points along with Hansen, Maya Tijerin made it 53-26 in favor of the Panthers with just 1:38 left to play.
Coconino led by five twice in the opening quarter, both coming on 5-0 runs, but St. Mary's stayed within striking distance thanks to hitting two 3-pointers. A 7-0 run from the Panthers to start the second stanza ballooned a four-point lead into a 21-10 advantage. Kiana Manuelito provided Begaye and assist inside the paint to start the scoring, and followed up with a bullet of a pass to Begay for a transition bucket on the ensuing possession.
"I thought Kortnee played spectacular tonight, we fed her and she finished, she did a great job. It's good to see that going into the game Friday, knowing we have that weapon available to us," Reyes said.
Despite notching just two points in her first-ever state tournament appearance, freshman Oniah Barton-Paddock was running the Panthers backcourt with Golding well throughout the night and played with hunger to set the tone of the game.
The Panthers will face the third-ranked Eagles on Friday at Flagstaff High School for a 6:30 p.m. tipoff.
"What we really need to do is box out because Flagstaff killed us on the boards last time, so we've been working on that a lot. And not getting freaked out when pressured, so we've been having different groups come in and pressure us," Begaye said.