CONEJOS COUNTY – As difficult it can be to enter a relationship, an exit’s often more elusive.
Ignacio High School head boys basketball coach Chris Valdez admitted as much following a season-opening loss Saturday at non-league Sanford, regarding continued usage of a 2-3 zone defense regularly exploited by timely outside shooting.
“We got in a little bit of foul trouble early and I went to it, kind of got married to it,” Valdez said of the zone, “instead of playing man-to-man like we did late when we made our run, got back within four when we were down by 10. Then, of course, they got to the free-throw line and extended their lead. Lesson learned.”
Down by as many as eight points, 19-11, early in the second quarter as Sanford senior center Ruben Chavez quickly booked 11 points, the previously eighth-ranked Bobcats clawed back into contention behind five Bryce Finn points and a half-ending coast-to-coast take by Dylan Labarthe that left IHS down 25-22 at intermission.
“I was excited to finally start,” said Labarthe, a senior forward, who’d out-leapt Chavez to win the initial jump ball. “From my first year and stuff and now my last year playing with everyone, I was excited.”
Senior guard Joe Garcia, also amped to become a varsity regular and an even more essential one with Triston Thompson unfortunately off the roster, finally regained Ignacio (0-1, 0-0 2A/1A San Juan Basin) a 29-28 advantage with a three-point play resulting from a Justin McCarroll foul, and then answered Chavez’s subsequent go-ahead bucket with a conventional, confident 3-pointer.
Sanford freshman guard Cash Caldon responded in kind from deep, the second of what would end up being four crucial 3s, and the previously fifth-ranked Indians would outscore the Bobcats 6-1 the rest of the third quarter, with two Kelton Gartrell free throws (coming with only 1.8 seconds left) increasing SHS’ lead to 39-33.
A Caldon 3 plus Gartrell put-back later swelled the advantage to 46-36 before IHS began full-court pressing the issue and regenerating the intensity expected of crews set to have clashed last year in the COVID-curtailed 2020 Class 2A State Championships’ do-or-die consolation-bracket semifinals.
“Ignacio’s a good team, and we were lucky they were on their first game while we were glad to have a couple games’ experience,” said SHS skipper Rhett Larsen, alluding to the 62-55 loss to No. 11 Mancos (now ranked No. 5) as well as a non-league season-opening home win on Thursday over Custer County. “Mainly, we’ve got to get better on defense, stronger on the boards and get continuity from our offense; we’ve got a lot of new guys in new places.”
“I think that’s how Mancos beat them; they put a little bit of pressure on bigger guys who weren’t as good with the basketball,” Valdez said. “So, that’s what we’re going to try to do next time if we get a chance at them.”
Back-to-back hoops by Labarthe (six points) and Finn (11) got the Bobcats back to 49-45, but Chavez countered with three free throws in four tries. IHS senior guard Brady McCaw managed to convert an and-one drive with 10.6 seconds remaining, slicing the deficit down to 52-48, but Sanford junior Ethan Larsen (11 points) iced the game with a free throw. SHS went 12-of-15 from the stripe; IHS ended up 9-of-14.
“They got a little scared; we were able to get some steals and easy baskets,” said McCaw, who booked a team-high 16 points. “We were just messing up, making silly fouls and losing the ball, but we were just excited to get playing again finally.”
Garcia finished with eight points, while junior Gabe Tucson contributed five and senior reserve Jawadin Corona two.
Chavez, meanwhile, racked up 18 points, as did Caldon for Sanford (2-1, 0-0 2A Southern Peaks) in victory.
“Ruben did a really good job. He was battling on the boards, got a lot of tough buckets that we needed,” Larsen said. “We’d miss shots and he’d come up with the rebound, and there were a couple times he got his own rebound and put it back. Just relentless in there. He was really sharp but I was proud of them all.
“Third game in three days and, you know, they showed some signs of being tired but they fought through it. They stepped up, made free throws at the end; that showed a lot of fortitude on their part.”
Up next for Ignacio will be the Four Corners Southwest Classic, with 3A Montezuma-Cortez first up at 4 p.m. Friday, inside Class 4A Durango High School’s gymnasium. The Bobcats will then face 3A Bayfield at 11 a.m. Saturday but will not duel the rotating tournament’s 2021 hosts.
“Coach (Larsen) even told me, ‘For your first game, you guys really looked like you had it together a little bit,’” said Valdez. “We made a lot of mistakes, but he complimented us on how well we played for our first game. Goes, ‘We’ve got to do this three nights in a row, kind of get it down, and you still made us look bad at times.’ But that doesn’t win us the game.
“We’ll get to see Cortez, and they’ve got a good team again, I’m sure. And Bayfield, we’ve got to step it up and play better than we did if we want to beat those teams.”