Coconino boys basketball had a few close calls to some opponents who ended up in the 4A Conference postseason and now gets a shot at a rematch with one of those teams.
The 13th-seeded Panthers host the No. 20 Marcos de Niza Padres tonight at Coconino High School in the state play-in round.
The Padres handed the Panthers a 53-52 loss on the road in the Valley back in early December. The Padres were led by a 22-point outing by senior guard Russ Lingruen, who has kept that pace up all year at 20.6 points per contest to go along with 6.2 rebounds.
He led the way, while Coconino held down the Padres' other leading scorer, senior guard Tommy Lingruen, to just 12 points on 4-of-11 shooting.
"It was our second game of the season and they are well-coached; David Stark is a hall-of-famer with 300 victories," said Panthers head coach Mike Moran Thursday, who was just named the Grand Canyon Region Coach of the Year for the second time in three years. "We are better than we were, it was still early in the season. ... We're a lot better and I'm sure they are too."
Offensively the Panthers didn’t have a dominant day from anyone in particular, but saw some balance as three players tied the team high of 11 points -- Preston Olney, Jacob Begay and William Mcmenamin.
The Panthers went 12-4 since, finishing the year 12-6 and 11-1 to win the Grand Canyon Region title for the first time since 2017-18, overcoming the early 0-2 start to the power-point slate to make the play-in round after missing it a season ago.
The Padres ended up finishing the season at 9-9 overall and 4-6 in the 4A Desert Sky -- which houses two of the top teams in the 4A in Mesquite and Arcadia.
Moran has said all season that he thinks the Panthers have shown they can play with just about anyone in the 4A and have gained the respect of opposing teams in the process with the way his team plays night in and night out.
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Coconino lost to four teams that eventually earned play-in byes as top-eight teams in the conference, having dropped games to Peoria, which finished the regular season undefeated, St. Mary’s, Buckeye Union and Arcadia.
The Panthers led each of the four at some point in each game. Coconino led Peoria by halftime but lost by double digits, while it led the other three late only to fall by single digits.
Defense wasn’t the issue in any of the games, holding most of the teams to at or below their season-scoring averages. Begay and Olney did well to contain each of the team’s star guards, Peoria’s Isaac Monroe, Buckeye’s Tay Bootham and Arcadia’s Max Majerle, holding each below their season averages as well.
"I tell the boys, 'We held Peoria to 50 points, they were averaging like 80,' Moran said after the Flagstaff game on Tuesday. "They held us to 38, we were down six buckets -- four 3s -- to the No. 1 team in the 4A. We are making great progress and I am proud of them. It's the will to win. I am just so proud of what Coconino is doing overall."
Olney and Begay will again be asked to shoulder the load on the perimeter in holding down Russ and Tommy Lingruen. Each scores more than 20 per game this season for Marcos de Niza.
Tip-off is set for 7 p.m., today at Coconino High School.
In addition to Moran earning region coach of the year, Begay was named region defensive player of the year, as well as landing on the All-Region First Team.
Begay joked following his team’s win over Flagstaff on Tuesday that he wanted to win defensive player of the year over Olney -- who won it a year ago,
Olney joined Begay on the first team while Avram Tijerin landed on the second team. Mcmenamin, Andrew Anderson and Anthon Watson were named as honorable mentions.