AZTEC — Shiprock had to travel to Aztec on Friday night, but it was hardly a road game for the Chieftains.
Shiprock’s fans packed Lillywhite Gymnasium to cheer their Chieftains on to another victory.
The Chieftains gave those fans plenty to cheer for, too, scoring 30 points in the first quarter while surrendering just nine to the Tigers.
That 21-point first-quarter lead was all Shiprock needed to win an up-tempo game 87-73.
“It was up and down, up and down. That is the kind of game we like,” said Shiprock guard Justin Begay, who scored 18 of his team-high 25 points in the first half.
Aztec (7-10) played strong the rest of the way against Shiprock (15-4), but the early hole was too big to dig out of against a team with the offensive capabilities of Shiprock, who is ranked No. 3 in class 3A.
“We have gotten off to a slow start the last few games and that is something we have to fix,” said Aztec head coach Jody Christman. “Other than that, we played alright. We did a decent job on defense getting a hand on the ball. We had a bunch of near-steals that we just weren’t able to bring in and convert into points.”
Aztec’s Wyatt Schlueter led the team’s comeback charge with a game-high 26 points after being shutout in the first quarter.
But it wasn’t enough as Shiprock point guard Hiram Gleason scored 22 points of his own.
Gleason also facilitated the rest of the team with great passes to open men.
“I just had to fill in the gaps and find the open man. I just have to pass, pass, pass,” Gleason said.
Patdric Toehe scored another 11 for Shiprock.
Dominique Todacheenie stepped up with 11 points, all in the second half for the Chieftains.
The 6-foot-2 senior almost brought the gym to a roar with a dunk attempt in the fourth quarter, but he got a bit excited before takeoff and fumbled the attempt.
Both teams battled turnover problems all night, which was expected for such a fast-paced game.
“We wanted to run with Aztec. They have been putting up a lot of points lately and have improved a lot,” said Shiprock head coach Chester H. Atictty Jr. “We did well when we ran with them, but sometimes the guys panic when they don’t need to and turn it over.”
Shiprock went just 21-for-35 at the free-throw line in the game, another stat Atcitty wants to see his team improve in.
Aztec was just 17-for-33 from the line.
“We had a bunch of free-throw line struggles. We have guys who are going to score for us, but we have to make free throws,” Christman said.
Aztec will face Bloomfield one more time Tuesday before beginning the District 1-4A schedule Feb. 2 at Piedra Vista.
“We are closer to where want to be. We are practicing well, and I hope we can come out and put it all together for district,” Christman said.
Shiprock will host Farmington on Tuesday before beginning District 1-3A play against Thoreau on Feb. 2.
Atcitty wants his team to continue to improve defensively, and he hopes the team can put together complete games come state tournament time.
“Coach keeps reminding us of how state ended for us last year,” Begay said. “He tell us to remember how it felt to lose, and that is making us work harder.
“The longer we go into this season, the more fans keep showing up to the games. That is giving us a ton of energy as we go.”
Atcitty said the excitement in Shiprock is apparent, but he hopes to keep the team focused on building toward its ultimate goal all year long.
“It is definitely exciting right now, but when you get down to the state quarterfinals it is tougher. In the semifinals, you have to have a little luck,” he said. “We want to get to that championship game this year and win it, but we know it will take a complete game. Hopefully we can get it done better by then.”
Gleason said the team is going to keep working harder, but he said the team should enjoy the process.
“We want to have fun,” Gleason said.