A depleted and injury-plagued Coconino Panthers boys basketball team struggled heavily in a 4A Conference matchup with the St. Mary’s Knights on Tuesday at Coconino High School.
The 12th-ranked Knights (6-3, 2-1 Skyline Region) were too much for the 27th-ranked Panthers (3-4, 3-2 Grand Canyon) as Coconino fell wire-to-wire, 77-44, at home. Coconino played without four major players in the loss, as Ethan McGowan, Avram Tijerin, Roy Billups and Jacob Begay were all sidelined due to injury.
“You are what you are and we took a beating in the White Mountains, we had four starters out,” Panthers head coach Mike Moran said about his team's injury troubles. “You see Manuel (Cardoza) out there and he’s got that mask and he’s struggling to see the ball. Jacob Begay is on the bench. Ethan McGowan’s on the bench. We have a lot of work to do getting healthy. That’s the way it is, sometimes that happens."
Although Cardoza was able to play, he had to while wearing a protective mask because of an injury he suffered during a tournament over the holiday break. The Panthers went 3-3 in the tourney, getting wins over Thatcher, Marana and Chinle all by single digits, but came out of it with multiple players sidelined with injuries after some tough outings in the White Mountains at Blue Ridge High School.
With Billups and Begay, two of Coconino's most productive players as well as ball-handlers unavailable, the Panthers committed 24 team turnovers upon returning to regular-season play. Preston and TJ Olney were forced to play extended minutes due to the injuries and both struggled to find their rhythm against St. Mary’s pressing and trapping defense.
Billups and Begay would normally be on the court to relieve pressure off other guards against a trapping full-court press, and even turn the pressure around in a press of their own, but with them off the floor the Panthers struggled to break the press and gave the Knights easy layups off of live-ball turnovers.
With so many turnovers and the struggles on offense, the Panthers rarely had any opportunity to run their press, lessening the amount of turnovers forced by Coconino.
Preston Olney, who went for nine points and six turnovers to just three assists, also got into first-half foul trouble as he committed his third foul with two minutes left in the first half with the Panthers looking up at a 32-20 deficit.
Despite being down the entire night, the Panthers kept the game within single digits for most of the first half until the Knights closed the second quarter on an 11-2 run to take a 37-22 lead into the break. The Knights continued the hot shooting into the third quarter when they used a 12-0 run midway through the quarter to pull away, taking a 61-35 lead into the fourth.
In the third quarter alone the Knights hit on five of their six 3-pointers taken.
“We looked shocked,” Moran said. “We looked really out of it. We were dribbling the ball too much, we’re turning it over so many times. Not having Roy out there and Jacob, two of our best guards, hurts us. It was so ugly at times it’s hard to watch, but that’s who we are right now. We need to keep playing hard and need to figure it out. Nobody said it was going to be easy. Life never is and every basketball team goes through stretches and we’re in one of the toughest I’ve been in.”
The Panthers have now dropped two straight regular-season games, with the first loss coming to Mingus Union before the holiday break.
Senior Panthers guard Tanner McNeese led Coconino in scoring with 11 points, going 3 of 4 from the foul line in the loss.
The Knights were led by Deven Dahlke’s 23 points and Orlando Gonzales’ 15. For Coconino, Brennan Motes was able to snag a team-high seven rebounds and add six points. TJ Olney ended the game with seven points and six turnovers.
The Panthers will take on the Flagstaff Eagles (2-6, 2-3 Grand Canyon) in the crosstown matchup Friday at the War Memorial Gymnasium at Flagstaff High. Moran said he hopes to have all his injured players back and ready to play for the rivalry game.
Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. following the conclusion of the girls game.