Mona Shield Payne / Special to the Sun
Saturday, Jan. 15, 2011 | 2:05 a.m.
If the Panthers could keep Centennial’s Aaseem Dixon, a senior guard who averages 18 points per game, from making an impact offensively, they would be victorious.
Palo Verde defenders shadowed Dixon around the court all night, limiting the senior guard to seven points on six shots and executing the strategy to perfection for a 57-54 victory in a crucial Northwest Division game.
Dixon recorded his first field goal at the 1:49 mark of the third quarter and often times didn’t touch the ball on an offensive possession.
From the opening tip-off to the final whistle, Dixon had someone chasing him. He created both of his field goals, scoring the first on an offensive rebound and put back, and the second on a running jumper in transition. He also went 3 of 4 from the free throw line.
“He is their main guy and everything goes through him, so we wanted to contain him,” Palo Verde coach Jermone Riley said. “He’s a great player. That was our game plan and it worked. That goes to show the respect we have for him as a player.”
Palo Verde erased a four-point deficit in the final three minutes, with the decisive points coming from Nahjee Matlock on two consecutive field goals in 17-second span with a little more than one minute to play.
Matlock led Palo Verde with 17 points, but it was his effort defensively that was the difference. He was the primary defender on Dixon.
“He is pretty much their entire offense,” Matlock said. “Our coach told me that if we didn’t stop him the game would be lost.”
Eris Winder hit a pair of free throws with 7.8 seconds remaining to seal the win. After Centennial misfired on a desperation 3-pointer, the players on the Palo Verde bench stormed the court in celebration.
After all, it was a big win.
Centennial (14-3) was undefeated in six Northwest games, beating league foes by an average of 22 points per game.
Palo Verde, which in 2009 lost in the state finals and last year lost in the regional finals, had struggled this winter while getting several younger players experience. They were miserable in non-league games, posting a 1-4 record and losing by 50 points to Canyon Springs.
Now, they have a signature victory — and a confidence builder. More importantly, the Panthers (8-5, 6-1) are tied with Centennial for first place in the Northwest.
“Every other team thinks we aren’t good, that we are sorry and that we would come in last in our division,” said Winder, who added 11 points. “This win will show them. We are still Palo Verde. We are going to stay in first place and stay winning. We are going to keep our reputation.”
Palo Verde was aggressive early and jumped out an 11-point lead early in the second quarter. The Panthers connected on four of its initial six 3-point attempts, with Winder, Matlock, Mitchell Scott and Will McCosker connecting from long range.
“I feel like our group is buying in,” Riley said. “They are understanding that it is tough love with this coaching staff because we know how good they can be.
“We are getting better every second, every practice, every day. We are going to coach these players until the end, whenever that is.”