After falling behind by 10 points in the opening quarter, the Coconino Panthers rallied back to capture the consolation title at the Pepsi Holiday Tournament Saturday night at Flagstaff High School.
Led by Emilio Esquivel’s free-throw shooting in the final minute, the Panthers outscored the Sunrise Mountain Mustangs 30-19 in the second half on the way to a 47-40 victory in their 12th game in the past nine days.
“We have a good bench developing every day in practice,” said Panthers head coach Mike Moran. “(Brett) McGowan is out injured, Harding Eddie wasn’t anywhere near up to speed with a bad wheel and with Brandon Todacheenie on the bench, a real important part of our rotation, it was just an amazing team effort. That's all we talk about, is the team.”
Holding a one-point advantage early in the fourth quarter, a pair of 3-point plays for Coconino seemingly put Sunrise Mountain away. After the Mustangs missed a pair of free throws and failed to retake the lead, Toby Freeman connected on a corner 3 with 5:45 remaining. Still holding the Mustangs scoreless, freshman Dustin Richard drove into the paint and connected on a layup while falling backward, and added the free throw following a foul.
“His life and his explosiveness, his ability to take the ball to the rack, he is learning,” Moran said of Richard. “Him and his dad, they have been playing a lot of ball together over the years. It’s great to see him getting experience and learning. He is a great kid if you get to know him.”
The Panthers’ 38-31 advantage with 4:05 left was the margin they won by, while the Mustangs failed to score for the first five minutes of the fourth quarter.
Esquivel led Coconino with 18 points, scoring 12 in the second half and connecting on 7 of 9 from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter. Freeman and Richard added 10 points, with Joram Watson finishing with six.
“It was the bench, we brought in a bunch of young guys and Dustin Richard would get the game ball today,” Moran said. “He came in and played a lot of minutes, really sparked this team. We had some kids come off the bench, we have got Brennan Motes back in the lineup finally and he played a great game.”
With Esquivel hitting five free throws in the final 34 seconds, the late success from the line helped balance out the early struggles. Coconino hit just 4 of 12 from the free-throw line in the first half, hindering a potential comeback earlier on.
After a 4-4 tie to start the game, Sunrise Mountain put together a run and led 17-7 after eight minutes. Chipping away in the second quarter, a 3-pointer in the third put Coconino up 29-27 before the schools entered the final eight minutes tied.
Coconino reached the consolation finals with an early Saturday morning victory against 2A Hopi, using a strong second-half push to beat out the Bruins.
The Panthers will look to stay perfect in regular-season play Monday, visiting the Mohave Thunderbirds at 7 p.m.
Knocking off Coconino and Basis Flagstaff on the first two days of the tournament, the Faith Lutheran Crusaders of Las Vegas beat the 2A Pima Roughriders and 3A Winslow Bulldogs to take the Pepsi Holiday Tournament title Saturday night.
Having fallen to the Winslow Bulldogs Friday night, the Flagstaff Eagles dropped into a meeting with Grand Canyon Region rival Mingus Union Saturday afternoon.
With meetings against Mingus set for Jan. 5 and Jan. 30, Flagstaff used some of its depth in the game to come away with a 61-55 victory.
The Eagles jump right back into Grand Canyon Region play with a game at Prescott Monday at 7 p.m.
Wrapping up its three-game run in the Pepsi tournament, the 1A Basis Flagstaff Yeti fell 59-28 to the 3A Snowflake Lobos Saturday morning.
The Yeti will return to regular-season play Tuesday against Ash Fork/Seligman at 7 p.m.