Matt Hernandez

MALC’s Matt Hernandez dribbles up court Saturday against the Duncan Wildkats. The No. 8 seed Patriots fell to the No. 9 seed Wildkats 36-33.

BULLHEAD CITY — Saturday night’s first-round Class 1A playoff pairing between Mohave Accelerated Learning Center varsity boys and Duncan High had all the makings of a nail-biter.

Sure enough, it came down to the wire, with the visiting Wildkats surviving 36-33 at MALC’s gym The Battleground.

It was a defensive duel indicative of the final score as the Patriots, who entered as the eighth seed, couldn’t get rolling offensively against the No. 9 Wildkats.

MALC coach Joey Leslie, who was cautiously confident before tip-off, was philosophical after the game. 

“At the end of the night, some of our shots just didn’t fall,” said Leslie, whose team finished its regular season with a 14-4 record.

Buckets were difficult to come by early on, until Leslie’s eldest son, senior center Jacob, jump-started MALC’s scoring.

Josh Neal gave the Patriots a spark and a 7-6 lead toward the end of quarter one.

Throughout the contest, Duncan’s players kept crashing the boards — intermittently leading to fouls but also rewards. 

The first-half highlight for MALC was David Huddleston’s second straight theft, upon which he fed Matt Hernandez, who converted for a 10-9 lead.

Moments later, Devin Homer connected from long range and a short-lived 18-14 advantage. Duncan chipped away until it was 20-18 at half.

After intermission, Zach Neal emerged with a basket but the Wildkats responded forthwith; midway through the third it was knotted at 22.

Both squads tightened the screws on defense, and Duncan managed to continue snagging rebounds. The upshot was a 24-24 tie entering the final frame.

With the Patriots’ twin towers Leslie and Zach Neal taking a momentary breather on the bench, Duncan didn’t take advantage.

When Leslie returned, he promptly earned a traditional 3-pointer, thanks to a hoop-and-harm layup for a 27-24 lead.

Minutes later, it was 29-29. The pesky visitors, slowly and methodically, began to convert shots and forge ahead, 33-29.

But then Homer — following a pickpocket by Hernandez — nailed a shot, and Leslie followed with another to pump up the home crowd.

Again, the Wildkats answered with a lay-in and free throw, after which MALC’s long-range attempt in the waning seconds failed.

“My guys played hard,” said Coach Leslie. “It’s tough to see this senior class go — they are amazing young men with bright futures. MALC basketball also has a bright future, and these underclassmen are ready for the challenges before them.”

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