Montabella gets first win over CC-C in 11 years, uses big second-half run to defeat Eagles, 43-28
HOME TOWNSHIP — JT Smith enjoyed a successful basketball career at Montabella High School.
The senior will be the first to tell you about some of the best wins and accomplishments of his basketball career. But he had a chance Wednesday to do something he’d never done in his basketball career — beat the Carson City-Crystal.
“I was 0-7 against them,” Smith said with a smile.
It took even longer for Montabella head coach Jared Simon, who in his eight years as head coach of the Mustangs had never beaten the Eagles. In fact, the last win Montabella had against CC-C was in the 2012 District Quarterfinals, a game hosted by the Mustangs. Although both teams had good basketball streaks in between, the Eagles maintained a stranglehold on this intense rivalry.
Luckily for the Mustangs, JT Smith’s mark against CC-C went 1-7 after the Mustangs’ 15-point home win over the Eagles, 43-28. However, early on it looked like the Mustangs were in for another classic CC-C defensive showdown.
The Eagles drew first blood and took the lead with a 3-pointer from Senior Mason Smith. The Mustangs scored the next two buckets to take a 4-3 lead in the first quarter after 6:15, but the Eagles responded with seven straight points to end the quarter and led 10-4 into the second quarter .
A lone field goal from JT Smith was all the Mustangs could muster in the first five minutes of the third quarter. The Eagles extended their lead to 16-6 with 2:56 remaining in the half and they rode high on their hot start.
“We came out firing, we came out ready to go,” said CC-C head coach Cory Schneider. “We might have surprised them a bit but we knew they were a good team, they would recover. Especially a senior led team they have, they are well trained we knew they were going to make a run.
“The first quarter started out pretty much like any other game against them and we couldn’t seem to find it,” Simon said. “The ball was standing still, they’re so good at not allowing any openings and you’re just not used to playing like that. You can’t simulate in practice because you can’t do it as well as they do. So when they see (the pass path open) they don’t want to throw it or they hesitate, so the ball gets stuck and doesn’t move.”
JT Smith needed a spark on offense in the worst possible way, getting an open look from deep in the left corner and drilling a much-needed 3-pointer. On the next drive down the court, Senior Rayce Sackett followed with another 3-pointer from the same spot in the left corner. Suddenly, the Eagles’ 10-point lead had shrunk to just four, up 16:12 from 2:02 in the quarter.
“I knew I had to go at some point, we were struggling,” said JT Smith. “Most of the time it’s up to me to make it work. As soon as I roll, everyone rolls. I had to go and once I started hitting shots we all loved it, we took over the game.”
After another Mustangs bucket and another empty possession from CC-C, the Mustangs had a shot-to-last shot. Smith found a way to create a little space, being closely guarded by CC-C senior Oisin O’Grady and sophomore Cole Smith, and delivered a shot from deep 2-point range when the buzzer sounded. It went in successfully, sending the home crowd into a frenzy as the Mustangs leveled the game 16-16 and went into the half. The Eagles’ big lead was gone and the Mustangs had new momentum.
“We had hoped that our lead would last a little longer, but Montabella reacted well and equalized at half-time,” said Schneider. “JT, that was quite a shot there just before half-time.”
Montabella took back the lead 17-16 at 6:38 in the third quarter, but the Eagles regained the lead on the next possession of a Mason Smith 3-pointer. The Eagles would hold on to that lead, but Montabella finally took it back, going 22-21 with 2:54 in the third quarter. The Mustangs were leading 27-23 into fourth place and the feeling was different from previous games in the series. The momentum was all up to Montabella, who lived up to the title that was bestowed on them.
“We’ve always been labeled a second-half or third-quarter team,” junior Austin Foster said. “That really proved it.”
“We’ve been a third quarter team all year, it’s a shame we started so slowly,” added JT Smith. “We started pushing a bit there in the second half, went back to our game plan. We walked away from the press and I don’t really know why, but when we got back on it we felt like things went a lot smoother.”
However, Simon wasn’t able to let go of his guard until late in the fourth quarter. Having never beaten the Eagles, he knows you can never be too comfortable, even when the lead warrants it.
“In the first half I had the feeling that we could get back into the game,” said Simon. “But with them, until you’re really away from them, you don’t feel like you have it. They’ll put you in positions where you have to flip it in places where you, as a coach, look at it and say, “Oh my god, how do you do that?” They put you in bad times all the time, it’s hard to ever feel like you’re escaping them just because they can put defensive pressure on you.”
So what else could the Mustangs do to convince Simon to let his guard down? He played solidly on both sides of the ball, beating the Eagles 16-5 in the fourth quarter and sealing the team’s first win in the one-sided rivalry in 11 years.
Smith led the Mustangs with 13 points, but Foster was right behind him with 12, eight of those coming in the second half. Foster found himself constantly open under the basket against a tight defending unit and he thanked his running-mate for giving him the good looks.
“There was so much focus on JT, so I kept coming back to the vacancy and they hit me,” Foster said.
“I felt like he looked good in the first half and didn’t finish,” added Simon. “I kept telling him that, ‘You take it where you want it, you just have to get strong and finish it,’ and he started doing it. We used some of the way they did things to get a good position and he did a good job of getting the readings where the defense was and putting him in position to go to get the passport and the result.
Schneider echoed JT Smith’s statements — after the Mustangs started their pressured defense, the Eagles struggled to find a rhythm on offense.
“They did a good job putting pressure on us all over the pitch and wearing us down a bit,” said Schneider. “You did a good job keeping our guards off the trail. When we got on track, we didn’t finish as well as we would have liked.”
What resulted from the momentum shift was a massive 37-12 run from a 16-6 lead. The Eagles saw a compressed scoring, with Mason Smith leading the team with 13 points while Brayden Clark added seven points and seven rebounds and a block. Schneider hopes to include more players in the scoring at the next meeting, which takes place on February 20 in Carson City.
“We did a good job defensively,” said Schneider. “We fought really hard on defense. Offensively, the start we had, let’s see if we can continue that in the second half or continue in the first half. We’re going to look at that and see how we can keep our foot on the pedal and keep scoring at that speed while Montabella adjusts and slows us down.
The Mustangs, meanwhile, continued their winning streak up to 10 straight with the win. This has been a storied season for quite some time because for as long as many of the players can remember, this should be the year for the Mustangs basketball program. After 11 lost games everything is going like in a fairy tale.
“For years, this has been called our year,” Foster said. “Even when I was in seventh grade, this was called our year. It’s good to meet expectations.”
“They get these groups that get praised in middle school and then they forget to get better, they stop working,” Simon said. “These guys haven’t stopped working, they’re all in the gym year-round, it’s not just a November-March thing. A lot of them keep playing, whether it’s travel, AAU stuff, or just spending all summer here at the gym, they just keep getting better. As talented as they were last year, many of them bought into the weight room and it has helped them improve their game tremendously. It’s cool to see, we’ve looked at this group as a force to be reckoned with if they keep playing hard and playing together and so far we’ve done that.
Foster led the team with seven rebounds and added three steals and a block. Senior Drew Kelsey added 10 points and three rebounds while Sackett had five points.
The Mustangs will travel to St. Charles for their next game, while the Eagles, now 9-4, will host Fulton – both Friday at 7 p.m.