The biggest assist of the night was made two years ago when Mesa Ridge juniors Peterson Itugbu and JJ Cates convinced Cain Martinez to play organized basketball for the first time.
It paid off big time when the 6-foot-6 junior center scored 11 of his team-high 15 points in the final 12 minutes of Mesa Ridge’s 59-58 home win over Harrison Thursday night.
Martinez started playing organized basketball two years ago as a high school freshman after years of playing football.
“I was shocked when I heard he didn’t play basketball,” Itugbu said after the 4A Metro League opener for both squads. “We convinced him to give basketball a try, and now he is a big part of our success.
“He has really improved since he was a freshman.”
Grizzlies coach George Smith motivated the inexperienced forward, who took over when he played with aggression.
“We need him to play big every night,” Smith said. “After he went into a little slump I asked him (at halftime) if he was going to step it up for his team. That is exactly what he did.”
“Coach was mad and I knew I needed to attack and not go in soft,” said Martinez, who acknowledged the bad habit. “I’m just starting to get a good feel for basketball, but now I love it.”
The Panthers could not stop Martinez down low in the second half.
“We let their big guy get too many easy baskets and take over,” Harrison coach Al Blanc said.
Martinez also made a number of assists after he drew an extra defender. That included one to senior guard Cody Groff, who scored 13, including a 3-pointer with 1:14 left to make it 56-51.
The Panthers pulled out all the stops on defense in the final seconds, but Mesa Ridge reserve Curtis Crockett came in for the first time, drew a foul and hit both free throws with 13.1 seconds left to make it 59-55.
“That was a big moment for the senior,” Smith said.
Itugbu’s defense on Harrison junior Quincy Harding was critical in the fourth, Smith said. The Panthers hit 10 3-pointers, including five by Harding, in the first three quarters but were scoreless from long range in the fourth. Harding finished with a game-high 17 points.
Harrison (6-3, 0-1) made an 11-0 second-quarter run after the Grizzlies (5-4, 1-0 league) went ahead 19-12. The Panthers held Mesa Ridge scoreless for three minutes but could have pulled away if not for 1-of-6 free-throw shooting. As a result, Harrison only led 26-25 at halftime, setting the stage for Martinez’s big second half.