Pecos celly

The Pecos Panthers are state champions for the fifth time in seven seasons, defeating ATC 52-49 in the championship game Saturday morning at The Pit.

“It feels great, finally, we waited a long time, last year was a tough one,” Panther head coach Arthur Gonzales said. “365 days we’ve been waiting for this opportunity… and they pulled together and got the win.”

The Panthers had played ATC earlier this season, and beaten them by 31 points, leading many to believe coming into the game that the Panthers were all but assured the victory before tipoff. ATC had other plans, they took lessons from that game in January and were ready for the Panthers, beginning the game on a 6-0 run. The Panthers were able to bounce back throughout the first quarter, even taking a 14-12 lead with 1:23 left. It appeared that Pecos had absorbed the first punch and was ready to land one of their own, but ATC was not having it.

The second quarter was perhaps the Panthers’ worst quarter of basketball all season. The Panthers shot just 2/12 from the floor in the second quarter, they turned the ball over four times while forcing just one, and went on two different multi-minute scoreless stretches, including going nearly five minutes without a point from the end of the first quarter through the middle of the second. The Panthers went into the locker room trailing 31-20, their first double digit halftime deficit since Jan. 11, 2022 against 4A Taos, 14 months ago.

The Pecos Panthers were not themselves in the first half, ATC’s duo of wings, Rocky Miller and Julian Bernardino had their way to start the game and were able to control the pace and tempo of the Panthers. After halftime the Panthers did not make an appearance until there were under 30 seconds left, after the 10 minute break, they knew what they had to do, they had to be the Pecos Panthers again.

“Bottom line is everyone had an assignment,” coach Gonzales said. “Basically it’s just do our job, let’s get aggressive.”

The Panthers got aggressive, to start the second half the Panthers scored within 15 seconds thanks to a layup by Jodaiah Padilla, playing his final game. The Panthers press found another gear, they forced 7 turnovers in the third quarter alone, and an 11 point halftime deficit evaporated within four minutes thanks to an 11-0 run to start the half. 

“We’ve been in these situations before,” Padilla said. “Stu Clark there were two games where we went down and we all just talked to each other before the coaches went into the locker room, said what we needed to do, came out and executed.”

All season coach Gonzales has made it a point to talk about the depth of the Panthers. All season, even with four senior starters, the Panthers wanted it to be known that their bench was filled with capable guys as well, guys who could step up when their number was called upon. Today, Gonzales had to turn to his bench once again with senior guards Malik Barrens and Zach Fox finding themselves in foul trouble. That one who stepped up was Lawerence Ragland. Ragland had his moment in the semifinals, hitting two big threes to help the Panthers beat Meanul. Saturday in the second half, Ragland entered the game, and with 1:55 left in the third quarter he found the bottom of the net to give the Panthers their first lead since the first quarter, 36-33. Less than a minute later Ragland would get open once again and nail another three pointer, capping a 18-4 third quarter that had the Panthers leading by 3 entering the fourth.

“We talk about a floor general, he’s our floor general off the bench,” Gonzales said. “I can depend on little Rags any day, he’s a clutch shooter, he always has been.”

‘Little Rags’ came through in the third quarter, and in the fourth, in a game that went back and forth, with the Panthers barely holding on to a slim lead it was junior guard Josh Gonzales, who could not buy a bucket for three quarters, who hit two three-pointers in the final five minutes to push the Panther lead to five and start to put the finishing touches on a state championship season.

After heartbreak at The Pit a season ago, the Panthers were able to return to the scene of the crime, and grind out their fifth state championship in seven seasons. The Panthers finished the season 28-3 with 14 wins in a row. For coach Arthur Gonzales, this senior class was his group, and they got the job done in their final game. The Panthers will see nine seniors walk out the graduation door this Spring, but this is familiar territory. In 2020 the Panthers won the state championship with a senior-heavy team that many thought would fall from contention following the losses to graduation. In the three seasons since the Panthers have been to two state championship games and won a title. They will look for history to repeat itself, but right now for this group, none of that matters, they are the state champions. 


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