The Coconino Panthers started Thursday's game cold, but that didn't slow down their hot start to the season.

Brett McGowan led all scorers with 25 points, nine Panthers contributed on offense and Coconino overcame a slow start Thursday at home on the way to routing the Washington Rams, 71-54.

With their eighth win, the No. 5-ranked Panthers remained perfect in the regular season and matched last season's regular-season win total, reaching the mark with essentially the same core group from last year's roster.

"We knew we would have a good year coming, so we just worked hard during the summer, stayed positive, Coach kept us positive, and we worked hard on defense, which was a huge part of tonight's game," said senior Emilio Esquivel, who was part of last season's 8-10 team. 

Esquivel ended his night with 13 points for the Panthers, whose production up and down the roster on both sides of the ball continues to lead to success.

"It's all about defense for us, you can tell that," said Panthers first-year head coach Mike Moran.

After Esquivel hit a pair of free throws, Joram Watson ended the early scoring drought with a bucket inside with 4:40 left in the first quarter, cutting the deficit to 7-4 against the Rams, who entered the 4A Conference matchup ranked 29th. A 6-0 run put the Panthers ahead 8-7, and a 7-0 surge that ended the first quarter saw Coconino win the opening frame 15-10.

Esquivel finished 6 for 7 at the foul line and had seven of his points in the third quarter, which Coconino won 23-14 to take a commanding lead into the final eight minutes. The Panthers took a 53-33 lead with 20 seconds remaining in the third quarter when McGowan found Abel Harris in the paint for the hoop.

After allowing Washington's leading scorer Orrlando Moore -- a left-hander -- to tally 11 first-half points, Coconino held him to just two in the third quarter and 20 total. The Panthers handed the Rams (3-5) their fourth loss in five games, and held them to their second-lowest offensive output so far this season.

"We always come out in the second half, like great teams try to do, and set the tempo right off the bat, make them work at 7,000 feet and try to wear them down," Moran said.

The third-quarter intensity showed when Esquivel ripped a defensive rebound out of a Washington player's hand under the rim and quickly turned it into a trip to the charity stripe, where he hit both shots to push his team ahead 37-24. The Rams made it a 10-point contest with a foul shot, but Coconino followed with a 12-0 surge, during which Harding Eddie hit one of his three 3-pointers.

Tristen Wilson notched eight points and gave the Panthers a first-quarter lead that would not be relinquished, helping Coconino win the early battle inside as the offense started to pick up. Eddie contributed 14 points.

Just before going into halftime, McGowan raced down the floor on a Washington fast-break play, gained position in front of the shooter and denied the shot at its apex, sending the home crowd into a flurry and adding to Coconino's gradually building momentum. On the next trip down the court, Esquivel found Wilson and the team took a 31-22 lead into the break.

Coconino, which improved to 15-3 with Thursday's win when including tournament games, will continue the regular season when it takes on 5A Notre Dame Prep on Friday, Jan. 5 in Scottsdale.

"That's our 15th victory before Christmas. Last time that happened for Coconino High School, when was the last time that happened? It's been a long time," Moran said, adding that he guesses it's been since 1989. "We put in a lot of work, but now it's time to rest, spend five days with family and regroup on the 27th."

GIRLS BASKETBALL

Kortnee Begaye had a double-double, Taylor Hansen notched six steals and the seventh-ranked Coconino Panthers beat the No. 38 Washington Rams, 62-31, in a 4A contest Thursday in Phoenix.

Begaye ended her night with 12 points and 13 rebounds, and Kailani Charlie added 11 points as the Panthers handed the 1-6 Rams their fifth straight loss.

Hansen, along with Jada Golding, contributed eight points, and Kenzie Palmer had six.

Coconino started strong, scoring 23 in the first quarter while holding Washington to 14. Oniah Barton-Paddock, a freshman, put up four points.

The Panthers will play the Tucson Cactus Classic tournament before going back into the regular-season schedule Jan. 5 at home against Notre Dame Prep.

Mike Hartman can be reached at 556-2255 or at mhartman@azdailysun.com.