Belen Upsets Española in Class 5A State Championship Game

by Staff Reporter / Mar 14, 2018 / 0 comments
JP Sena going up for a shot. Photo courtesy of John McHale

Belen Upsets Española in Class 5A State Championship Game

By George Morse Sports and Outdoors


Valley Daily Post 2018 State Tournament Coverage is brought to you in partnership with KDCE Radio 

Tears flowed on the bench of the Española Valley High School boys basketball team at the Class 5A state championship basketball game March 10 at the Pit in Albuquerque.

Española players crying on the bench after losing to Belen High School 73-65 in the Class 5A state championship game at the Pit. Photo courtesy of John McHale

A crowd estimated at 14,000 had packed the Pit and judging by the way their cheers shook the roof when the Española team had been introduced, most of them had come to see the Sundevils. Española had put together a 28-1 season and was the top seed. The Sundevils were coming off a thrilling 63-59 overtime victory over Artesia High School March 9 in the semifinals and were back in the championship game after winning it all in 2016.

Española cheerleaders at the Class 5A state championship game. Photo courtesy of John McHale

They had already beaten their opponent, the Belen High School Eagles, 73-47 during the regular season. Española had been ranked Number One in Class 5A nearly the entire season and appeared poised to take their second state championship in three years.

It was the Eagles who soared, defeating Española 73-65 to win their school’s first state basketball championship.

“It was a good fairy tale,” Española Coach James Branch said. “It didn’t end the way we wanted it to end.”

After Española had won the 2016 state championship, chaos reigned at Española. Head Coach Richard Martinez was fired by then Superintendent Bobbi Gutierrez. Gutierrez was forced to resign by the Española School Board. Martinez was investigated by the State Public Education Department and subsequently had his coaching license revoked. Last season, with Richard Martinez’s brother Eric Martinez serving as coach, the Sundevils had made an early exit from the Class 5A state basketball tournament. Española lost in the opening round of state to Del Norte High School at Española.

Coach Branch was hired in May to replace Eric Martinez. If anything, it was hoped he’d bring some stability to the basketball program. Branch had served as C-team coach and varsity assistant in the 2015-2016 season and had coached the team during the summer after Richard Martinez was fired.

“He never gave up on us,” senior guard Christian Fernandez said. “He’s been with us not just this year but the past two summers. He never left us.”

Christian Fernandez scored 14 points against Belen in Española’s 73-65 loss to Belen High School in the Class 5A state championship game March 10 at the Pit. Photo courtesy of John McHale

Under Branch this season, the Sundevils developed into a team that went 10 players deep and displayed a cohesiveness that had been missing last season. Once again, Española’s Edward Medina Gym was packed to the rafters for the Sundevils’ home games and the team was the talk of the town.

“I think we turned a lot of heads,” senior post  Azaziah Salazar said. “No one expected us to overcome adversity. The year went by and here we are.”

AZ Salazar scored 10 points in the first half against Belen. Photo courtesy of John McHale

Belen came out with guns blazing and it was senior guard Garrett Gallegos who supplied the ammunition. Gallegos buried three three-pointers to give the Eagles a 9-0 lead before the Sundevils could recover. Belen started hot and stayed hot. Uriah Zenderly canned a three-pointer and Gallegos sank his fourth three-pointer to give the Eagles a 19-11 lead at the end of the first quarter.

After the Eagles took a 23-13 lead in the second quarter, Española started to heat up and they did it without their signature three-point shooting off the bench. With Belen focusing on stopping Española’s perimeter shooters, the inside opened up for post Salazar and senior forward J. P. Sena. Sena had four straight baskets, two of them on sweet inside assists from Salazar. His last basket tied the score at 25-25 at 1:56 of the second quarter.

JP Sena goes up for a shot against Belen. Photo courtesy of John McHale

Salazar then moved beyond the arc and buried a three-pointer for a 28-27 Española lead. Salazar’s replacement, Brian Martinez, moved out to the corner and nailed another three-pointer for a 32-29 lead. Belen battled back to within 35-33 after two free throws by Justin Evans. With time running out in the second quarter, point guard Ryan Trujillo drove the length of the court towards the basket, then dished off to Martinez for an easy layup to give Española a 37-33 lead at halftime.

It was the third quarter that proved to be the turning point in the game and it was disastrous for the Sundevils. Belen started with a 7-0 run after two baskets by post Ryan Garcia and a three-pointer by Zengerly. After a pair of free throws by Española’s Christian Fernandez, the Eagles flew off with a 10-0 run that featured three-pointers by Zengerly and Gallegos.

Española’s Christian Fernandez drives between two Belen defenders. Photo by George Morse for the Valley Daily Post

At 6-foot, both Zengerly and Gallegos were able to get their shots off and the 6-foot, 4-inch Garcia was effective scoring in the paint. Belen outscored Española 17-3 in the third quarter and held the Sundevils without a field goal to take a 50- 40 lead heading into the fourth quarter.

“That’s the ball game,” Coach Branch said. “I didn’t even know that. I didn’t even realize that. You’re not going to win many games if you can’t make a field goal.”

Española ramped up its pressure on defense to start the fourth quarter. Fernandez got things rolling with an old-fashioned, three-point play. After a turnover by the Eagles, Fernadez drove in for a layupto make the score 50-45. Garcia scored in the paint. Española’s Cameron Martinez, who heled spark the defensive effort, scored on a layup after Sena intercepted a pass. Two free throws by Fernandez followed by a 10-second violation when the Eagles couldn’t get the ball past midcourt led to two free throws by Sena that made the score 53-51 with the Eagles clinging to the lead.

Zach Mascarenas playing defense against Belen. Photo courtesy of John McHale

Gallegos came back with a pair of free throws and he then buried his sixth three-pointer of the game to give Belen a 58-51 lead. The Sundevils battled back. After two free throws by Isaiah Vigil got the Sundevils to within 63-58 with two minutes left to play, Zengerly drove a dagger into the Sundevils heart with a three-pointer that made the score 66-58 with time stating to run out on Española. Still refusing to quit, Sena pulled up for a rare (for him) three-pointer and nailed it to make the score 66-63 with 1:14 left to play.

Garcia, who sank 8-of-9 from the floor during the game, answered with a basket in the paint that made the score 68-63. When Sena’s pullup jumper bounced in and out, the Eagles could put the game away from the free-throw line. Belen went 5-of-6 from the charity stripe in the final 27 seconds to take the 73-65 victory.

One of the key factors in the Eagles’ win was the lack of scoring from Española’s bench. All season long, the Sundevils could count on double-digit scoring from their substitutes. Against the Eagles, the bench contributed just seven points.

The Eagles were efficient shooting the ball, canning 23-of-42 shots. Belen was 10-of-21 from beyond the three-point arc. The Sundevils, who shot 60 percent (15-of-25) in the first half, were just 7-of-25 in the second half and only 4-of-14 shooting three-pointers.

As the tears dried and the realization that although the ride had not ended like it was supposed to, the team reflected on the past four years. They’d been playing together for a long time. From rivals in elementary school to teammates in middle school and high school, they’d won a state championship, lost a state championship and overcome adversity like few teams have had to endure.

The Española Valley boys basketball team with the second-place trophy. Johns photos. Photo courtesy of John McHale

“With all we’ve done and all we’ve been through, we’ve left a legacy,” Vigil said. “We can look back and know we accomplished so much. We didn’t win, but we can look back on what we went through last year and everything that happened, we were able to make it back here.”