Thursday, Feb. 19, 2009 | 11:30 p.m.
After struggling with Western in the first half of the Sunset Regional Quarterfinals on Tuesday, the Palo Verde boys basketball team sent a message that they are back on track with an 88-62 win over Durango in the semifinals on Thursday.
Led offensively and defensively by senior point guard D.J. Stennis who had a game-high 27 points against his former team, the Panthers (30-5) jumped out to a 12-point lead in the first quarter and never trailed at any point in the game.
"I told the team we had to take this game personally," Stennis said. "Not just because we came out slow against Western. Not just because Durango is my old team. But because Durango took Palo out of the playoffs last year. We had to come out big tonight and we did that."
Panthers coach Jerome Riley said the quarterfinals match-up was a wake-up call to his team and that it lit a fire under his players that will be needed if they are going to win in the Sunset Regional finals on Friday. The Panthers will face Bishop Gorman in the Sunset Regional championship on Friday at 7 p.m. at Palo Verde. The Gaels eked out a victory against Cheyenne 78-76 in Thursday's first semifinal.
"I think it may have been a blessing, what happened to us against Western," Riley said. "We came out with no energy and Western jumped all over us. We saw that we couldn't play like that, especially against a team like Durango. Tonight we had more focus and more intensity."
Riley praised the work of the Panthers bench which saw significant minutes once Palo Verde reached a double-digit point deficit but never allowed the Trailblazers to climb back into the game. Riley also pointed to Stennis's defensive effort, which terrorized Durango with turnovers and helped hold leading scorer Marcus Falley to a team-high five points in the first half.
"(Stennis) was huge for us tonight," Riley said. "He played a solid point guard -- he was everything you want out of that position. He caused a lot of problems for Durango and just took the ball out of their hands."
Stennis said the Panthers have the right mind-set now to carry this momentum into the regional finals and possibly further.
"We believe we can keep going. We believe we can beat anyone," Stennis said. "We want a state championship and we won't settle for anything less and we have the talent to make that a reality."
Offensively, Stennis was supported by junior forward Moses Morgan who posted 24 points with 14 in the second half.
Despite nine points from senior guard Dario Jokic and 18 points from Falley in the second half, the Trailblazers (20-8) were unable to mount a comeback.
"Palo is a great, athletic team," Durango coach Deshawn Henry said. "They came out with a lot of intensity and we tried our best to match it. I'm proud of our kids though. I think this year will be a good stepping stone for next season."
Jared Harmon can be reached at 990-8922 or [email protected].