Panthers’ paws clutch SPL championship over ’birds’


Special To The Courier

BLANCA—Irked by missing the most crucial free throw of the night, Sierra Grande senior Arthur Rodriguez—who’d cashed two clutch freebies just 12.6 ticks before—scrambled back defensively, knocked the ball out of a Sangre de Cristo player’s hand from behind, and straight into junior Ambrosio Mondragon’s, allowing the Panthers to run out what remained of the penultimate 0:21.8 and polish off an undefeated run through the 1A Southern Peaks League Friday night inside SGHS Gymnasium.

“It’s good for the kids; they’ve been working hard,” head coach Matt Lucero said.  “At the beginning of the season everybody kind of forgot about them—which was good for us!  We’ve stayed under the radar the whole season, they’ve worked hard, and they deserved to win.”

“We didn’t play our best tonight,” he continued, noting a first half which saw the Thunderbirds take a 32-28 halftime lead behind 11 second-quarter points from junior Manuel Lopez, “which is good in the sense that we can learn a lot from this, because our district championship’s going to be tough.  I mean, there’s not an easy game; I think any of the five teams can beat anybody else.  We’ve got our work cut out!”

With the evening set off in proper, edge-of-your-seat SPL fashion—Panther sophomore Isreal Martinez buried a buzzer-beating three-pointer in the junior-varsity game, giving the hosts a 35-34 win—Sierra Grande rode the outside shooting of senior Urian Minchaca to a 42-41 lead late in the third quarter, with Mondragon adding a hoop with 10.2 seconds left and Rodriguez finishing the frame with two FTs before time expired.

Down 48-43 with only eight regulation minutes left, Sangre de Cristo (15-4, 7-3 SPL) came as close as 52-50 via a Jared Sinclair trey with 3:35 remaining in the game, but Minchaca immediately drove for a layup at the other end—giving him a double to go with five vital triples and 17 points for the contest.

“It’s just such a big game,” he said, “and I’d prepared all week for this.”

Rodriguez led SG (16-3, 11-0) with 24 points, including 6-of-8 from the charity stripe.  Mondragon and senior Dakota Aragon each contributed six points, junior Caleb Sanchez chipped in three and junior Dylan Milner one.  With three threes and four FTs in as many chances to his name, sophomore Cole Christensen led the visitors with 19 points.  Lopez finished with his aforementioned 11, and junior Jake Slane also booked 11.

Sinclair finished with seven points and sophomore Mario Enriquez recorded three.

Caption: Arthur Rodriguez (right) goes shoulder to shoulder with Sangre de Cristo’s Jared Sinclair on a rush. Rodriguez was the leading scorer for Sierra Grande posting 26 points, just shy of his season average./Photos courtesy of Kim Marquez