by David Tesitor
GRAND JUNCTION- The Cats made the Sweet Sixteen of the Colorado State playoffs last Friday after they defeated the Paonia Eagles 58-51 in a game in which four Panther players scored in double digits. The following night, the John Mall Panthers’ Cinderella storybook season came to an unhappy end at the hands of the Hayden Tigers, 65-35.
In the first game of the Regional Tournament, the Panthers opened up a strong 6-point lead off a tough defensive stand and a solid offense, which included a three-point shot by Jacob Wiggins. They then let it slip when the Eagles went on a 17-point run to end the first quarter. The Cats trailed after one, 17-11. Again the defense shut down Paonia with the Panthers executing a one-three-one match up zone defense. Charlie Whitehead was dominating under the boards as he out-muscled Paonia’s leading rebounder, Noah Kropp, and the rest of the team, including the Eagles’ leading scorer, Adrian Penny. The Panthers regained the lead at the 5:15 mark, after Wiggins went on a six-point scoring spree. From there, the teams traded buckets and the Eagles could never seem to gain any advantage.
The Panthers blew the game wide open in the third with a 9-point advantage and never looked back. A last second layup by the Panthers ended the third with the Cats leading 41-30. John Mall continued to break the Eagles’ full-court press and score with Zach Harriman able to feed the ball to open Panthers. The Eagles dropped to a trap defense, but it was not enough as the Panthers managed to maintain control and win the game with ease. Whitehead would lead all scoring with 16, Wiggins put in 15, Dylan Tenorio scored 14, and Steven Rodriguez 13.
It was a different team which hit the hardwoods the following afternoon. The Panthers’ defense could not contain the Tigers’ big men, seniors Craig Medvisk and Ben Williams. Medvisk, who scored 14 points, and Williams with 16 outscored the Panthers. John Mall came out strong in the first with an aggressive style of play but got in foul trouble early. Wiggins committed his third foul midway in the first and sat out most of the first half. He drew his fourth foul late in the second. He did not return in the third quarter, leaving the offense scrambling. Charlie Whitehead also heard the official’s whistle blow three times.
The Cats were able to stay in the game, trailing by one after the first. It was their solid shooting from the field which allowed the Tigers to open a comfortable lead in the second quarter and pull away, forcing the Panthers to take the long shots and fall farther behind. Hayden never relented in the second half and shut down the Panthers’ high-powered offense. When it was over, the Panthers scored only 15 second-half points to the Tigers 35. The loss finished the Panthers’ season and sent the Tigers to Pueblo where they will play in the Great Eight.
The game was also a testament to the fans who made the seven-hour drive to the western slope to support the Panthers. The Cats peaked at the right time in the season but were unable to keep up the momentum. The entire team and coaching staff should be proud of just how far the Panthers have come, and they send thanks to the fans for all the support.