Noah Austin

It was halftime in the 1973 AA state basketball tournament semifinals, and Flagstaff’s Coconino High School Panthers found themselves down 20 points and receiving a stern lecture from head coach Stan Townsend. “You guys picked the worst time to play your worst game,” he said. “You seniors, this is your last chance. You guys need to get together and figure it out.”

Then it was assistant coach Bob Blair’s turn — and he was somewhat less restrained. “That guy could swear up a storm,” recalls Mike Pavon, who worked at the Coconino student newspaper and also covered the team for the Arizona Daily Sun. “But when Blair swore at kids, they felt loved and inspired. He was like their favorite uncle.”

The bad-cop, worse-cop approach worked: The Panthers, led by star players Ray Tsingine and Steve Oakey, rallied for an improbable 72-69 win over Tucson’s Flowing Wells High School. They won the next night, too, and delivered Coconino, which had opened just six years earlier, the state title. “The mark of a true championship team,” Townsend said in the aftermath, “is if they can come back to a victory.”

Pavon recently wrote about the team’s unlikely title run in the Daily Sun, and he also published a book that explores the 1972-73 season in detail. “Back then, high school sports meant everything,” he says — and that was doubly true in Flagstaff, at the time a city of just 25,000. “When you were in a small town, it was just like that movie Hoosiers,” Pavon says. “You lived and died for your high school’s sports.” And when the Panthers played at home, he adds, the gym was always filled to capacity.

In the championship game, Coconino again needed a second-half rally, this time to outlast another Tucson team, the much taller Canyon del Oro. After a dominant third quarter, Tsingine and Oakey were among four Panthers who fouled out in the fourth, but bench players managed to protect the lead en route to a 74-68 win at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix.

Tsingine, who scored 23 points in the final, was voted captain of the all-tournament first team, and Oakey and Ray Smith made the second team. And while Coconino has fielded great teams in the half-century since — in the 1988-89 season, for example, the Panthers went 31-1 and played in the championship game — the 1972-73 squad remains the only Coconino team to take home a title. Earlier this year, members of the championship-winning team returned to the school for a celebration of what Pavon calls the “golden season” of Panthers basketball.