Del Norte Defeats Espanola Ending Sundevils’ Season

Espanola’s Christian Fernandez drives to the basket
Espanola’s Christian Fernandez drives to the basket. Photo by George Morse for the Valley Daily Post

Del Norte Defeats Espanola Ending Sundevils’ Season

By George Morse Sports and Outdoors

There will be no more close games that had Espanola Valley High School boys basketball team fans on the edge of their seats before wildly cheering when the Sundevils pulled out a victory. Del Norte High School withstood Espanola’s fourth-quarter comeback and held off the Sundevils for a 63-56 victory in the opening round of the Class 5A state basketball tournament Feb. 4 at Espanola. The loss ended Espanola’s season.

After trailing for most of the second half against the Knights, the Sundevils had battled back to tie the score 56-56 with one minute, 33 seconds left in the game. Down 56-51 with 2:47 left to play, senior josh Salazar missed a three-pointer, but Espanola chased down the rebound and the ball ended up back in Salazar’s hands. This time, his three-pointer found the mark, making the score 56-54. Edward Medina gym shook with the cheers of the Espanola fans.

Those cheers grew even louder when JP Sena intercepted a cross-court pass by Del Norte and drove downcourt for an uncontested layup that tied the score.

Espanola’s Josh Salazar drives to the basket for two points. Salazar led the Sundevils with 21 points. Photo by George Morse with the Valley Daily Post

With their fans rocking the gym and seemingly on a roll, it looked like the Sundevils would pull another victory out. Del Norte had every reason to wilt under the pressure on the court and from the stands. The Knights refused to be shaken.

“Every single one of us felt confident coming into this game,” Del Norte’s Ronson Begay said. “We were all behind each other. We knew we could overcome it if we stick together.”

Del Norte’s Elijah Hogan was fouled on the Knight’s next possession. Despite an ear-shattering roar from the stands, Hogan buried both free throws to give Del Norte a 58-56 lead.

The Knights had lost to Espanola three times during the regular season. Espanola was seeded fourth in the tournament and, ironically, ended up being matched up again against the 13th-seeded Knights. Those defeats had prepared Del Norte for the experience of playing in Espanola.

“Being here three times, we were ready for the pressure,” Del Norte Coach Jevon McIntosh said. “The kids were very confident. I was worried when they saw the selection that they would be disappointed having to play Espanola again. At practice the next day, they were excited.”

On Espanola’s ensuing possession, the Sundevils worked the ball into the paint to post AZ Salazar. Salazar was in the process of making one of his patented spin moves in the post when he was double-teamed and Del Norte’s Isaiah Mejia stripped the ball out of his hands. The Knight’s Daniel Flores was fouled with 39.7 seconds left. He canned one of his two free throws for a 59-56 Del Norte lead.

The Sundevils turned the ball over again on their next possession when a mishandled pass was snatched up by Mejia, who was fouled. Mejia made another free throw, giving Del Norte a four-point lead with 24.6 seconds left.

The Sundevils moved the ball upcourt. Sena launched a three-pointer from the right corner. The ball danced around the rim before falling off and into the hands of Hogan, who was fouled. He made one more free throw that made the score 61-56 with 14.6 seconds left.

A desperate three-point attempt by Espanola failed to find the mark. Begay finished the game with an uncontested layup that sealed the Sundevils fate.

“Everyone came together and we stayed as one,” Del Norte’s Adrian Velasquez said.

The game had started slowly and Del Norte held a 9-8 lead at the end of the first quarter after a three-pointer by Velasquez. In the second quarter, a three-pointer by AZ Salazar gave Espanola a 15-12 lead. Flores answered for the knights with another trey. A basket by Christian Fernandez gave Espanola a 17-15 lead. Begay tied the score at 17-17 and then had a nice assist to Trinity Carlson for a basket that put the Knights ahead 19-18. Espanola would never lead again. Del Norte led 22-19 at halftime.

The Sundevils hurt themselves from the free-throw line in the first half, going just 5-of-15 from the charity stripe. For the game, Espanola was just 11-of-25 from the free-throw line.

The Knights stayed in front of the Sundevils throughout the third quarter. At 3:17 of the third quarter AZ Salazar fell to the floor holding his head after some rugged action under the basket. He lay on the floor for many seconds before action was stopped. After a few minutes, he was helped to his feet and taken to the trainers room. He would return to action in the fourth quarter. The Knights led 40-35 at the end of the third quarter.

Josh Salazar led Espanola with 21 points that included 18 points in the second half and 12 in the fourth quarter as he made a valiant attempt to bring his team back before fouling out. AZ Salazar had 12 points for Espanola.

Espanola’s Josh Salazar fights for a shot under the basket. Photo by George Morse for the Valley Daily Post

The Knights would be making their first trip to The Pit in 10 years, according to Coach McIntosh. The will face Capital High School, the Sundevils arch rival in District 2-5A, in the Class 5A state tournament quarterfinals Wednesday (3/8) at The Pit. 

Espanola finishes the season 20-9 overall.