EL PASO – The previous three games of the El Paso-Gridley Regional were decided by just 10 points. With conference, county and Interstate 39 adversaries meeting in the Feb. 23 final, more drama was to be expected.
“I knew it was going to be like this,” pointed out Fieldcrest coach Matt Winkler. “It’s Fieldcrest/EP-G. It’s a fierce rivalry. Ten miles apart. Neither team gave in.”
The anxiousness and atmosphere was at a fever pitch, but the Knights secured the program’s 12th regional crown with a 49-40 triumph at the Titan Center.
Fieldcrest (19-11) led by as many as 12 at 18-6 following a three-pointer from Ryan Naas.
EP-G (16-13) clawed back and got within 37-34 with just over three minutes left on a bucket from Jack Weber.
“They cut it to three and I called a timeout,” recalled Winkler. “I was worried, but Derek May said in the huddle, ‘we’ve got this.’ “
A potential game-tying three from Dylan Smith missed with two minutes and 50 seconds remaining.
Knights’ point guard Jaxon Cusac-McKay drove the lane for a hoop to up the margin to five. He was fouled on the play and sank the free throw for a 40-34 score. Just a freshman, he scored 21 points in the first meeting with EP-G in mid-January. On Friday, he paced all scorers again with 19.
“The thing was they were keying on Derek and Hayden (Carls),” pointed out Winkler of the Titans’ defense. “Jaxon’s a phenomenal point guard. Jaxon’s a heck of a player. I cannot wait to coach him the next three years.”
Cusac-McKay picked up a technical foul, which doubled as his fifth foul with just under a minute to go.
Naas was also in double figures with 11 points.
Weber’s 11 points paced the Titans before the 6-foot-3 sophomore fouled out.
In the first meeting, Fieldcrest surrendered 61 points, as they were subdued by two on an Aaron Steiner basket with four seconds remaining.
“Our defense was better,” commented Winkler when asked the difference between the games. “We were aggressive. Our defense guarded better. We played great defense.”
EP-G could not overcome a cold start from the floor, as they made just one of their first 12 shots.
“We did a great job of fighting back,” Titans’ coach Nathaniel Meiss. “They’re a good team and you cannot give them a lead like that because they’re so good at spreading you out and holding the basketball.
“I thought we put guys in good position to shoot and they just did not go in,” he continued. “We talked at halftime about maybe getting to the foul line a little bit more and I thought we did a better job of that in the second half.”
Both teams sank 14 baskets, but Fieldcrest made six more at the charity stripe (17 to 11).