Espanola Boys Basketball

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Close But Not Enough Rio Rancho Beats The Sundevils Again
Valley Daily Post

 Christian Fernandez goes to the basket and scores two points against Rio Rancho Photo by George Morse\valleydailypost.

In a classic showdown between two defending state champions, the Rio Rancho High School Rams held on to a 57-54 victory over the Española Valley High School Sundevils Jan. 14 at Española. The packed gym filled with Española’s fans was rocking that night. Rio Rancho Coach Wally Salata talked to his team about the tough environment, but appreciated the chance to test his team under such conditions.
“This is the best crowd we’ve had all year,” Coach Salata said. “Two state champions squaring off, the fans got their money’s worth.”
It was the second meeting between the two teams this season. Rio Rancho defeated the Sundevils 79-60 Dec. 29 in the Rio Rancho Holiday Hoops tournament. It was a lot closer this time.
“Both teams had their chances,” Coach Salata said. “It’s all about focus and concentration at the end of the game. We stayed focused when we needed to.”The deciding factor turned out to be free throws. In the fourth quarter, when given two shots at the free-throw line, the Sundevils consistently missed one of them. For the game, Española was just 9-of-22 from the line.
The Rams weren’t much better – with the exception of Juan Hurt. Minus Hurt, Rio Rancho went just 10-of-24 from the line. Hurt was 17-of-18, including 14 in a row. He finished with 27 points.
Pardon the pun, but “Hurt” hurt the Sundevils.
Española took an early 5-2 lead after a three-pointer by Josh Salazar and a steal and layup by Christian Fernandez. Hurt sandwiched four free throws around a three-pointer to give the Rams a 9-7 lead. Española rallied back and Isaiah Vigil’s three-pointer tied the score at 14-14. The Rams came back to lead 18-14 at the end of the first quarter.
A basket by Hurt gave Rio Rancho their biggest lead of the game, 24-16, in the second quarter. The Rams stayed ahead of Española, who got as close as 30-28 when J. P. Sena drained two free throws. That
was the only time in the whole game that a Sundevil managed to sink both of his shots when given two opportunities at the line. Rio Rancho led 32-28 at halftime.
Hurt was strangely absent from Rio Rancho’s scoring for most of the third quarter. Slowly but surely, the Sundevils started to creep up on the Rams. With 25 seconds left in the third quarter, Española tied the score 39-39 on a three-pointer by Vigil that bounced high off the rim and then fell through the basket.
The crowd roared its approval. Hurt sank a pair of free throws to give the Rams a 41-39 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
The Sundevils took their first lead since early in the first quarter when Azaziah Salazar took a pass into the post, made a move and went to the basket. He sank the shot and drew a foul. He made the free throw to give Española a 42-41 lead early in the fourth quarter. After the Rams tied the score with a free throw, Fernandez scored on a spectacular drive to the basket where he picked up his dribble at the free-throw line and took two big steps to the basket. He added a free throw after that to give Española a 45-42 lead.
Fernandez had a chance to extend that lead moments later when he came up with a turnover and drove in for an open layup. He missed the shot and then fouled Rio Rancho’s Keshawn Banks out of frustration. It was his fourth foul and he took a seat on the bench while Banks made two free throws. With the score tied 45-45, an Española turnover led to two free throws by Hurt that gave the Rams a 47-45 lead. Hurt added another two points on a drive down the lane to give Rio Rancho a 49-45 lead. Española never lead again. With 1:02 left in the game, Fernandez had a chance to tie the game from the free-throw line, but made just one of his two shots. Rio Rancho ran time off the clock, but Española nearly came up with a turnover and forced a held-ball. The possession arrow, however, kept the ball in Rio Rancho’s hands.
With 30.7 seconds left to play, Hurt was fouled by Fernandez, who fouled out. Hurt uncharacteristically missed one of his free throws, making the score 55-53. Española missed a three-pointer and on the rebound, Vigil was fouled, although initially there was confusion as to who should be shooting. As the Sundevils had done in the entire fourth quarter, Vigil missed one of his free throws with 3.7 seconds left. On the inbounds play, Hurt was held before the ball was even passed inbounds. He sank both free throws to make the score 57-54. Azaziah Salazar’s heave from beyond half-court looked like it had a chance, but was just off the mark. “It was a good effort by the boys,” Española Interim Coach Eric Martinez said. “It will help us get better.” Free-throw shooting has plagued the Sundevils at times this season. In a game against Belen High School Jan. 10, the Sundevils missed 5-of-6 free throws in the fourth quarter and trailed 35-37. Fortunately, a three-pointer by Fernandez saved the day and Española took a 38-37 victory.
“If you’re going to make those money shots at the Pit (site of the state basketball tournament), you gotta start making them now,” he said.