Espanola’s Alycia Archibeque drives against Los Lunas. Photo by George Morse for the Valley Daily Post
Espanola Loses Heartbreaker In Semifinals To Los Lunas
By George Morse Sports and Outdoors
Down 37-18 at halftime to Los Lunas High School, the Espanola Valley High School Lady Sundevils made an incredible comeback in the second half of their semifinal game in the Class 5A girls basketball tournament March 9 at the Pit in Albuquerque. With post Alexis Lovato tearing up the Lady Tigers in the paint, scoring 20 of her game-high 31 points in the second half, the Sundevils were 21.9 seconds away from a victory that would send them to the state championship game for the first time in school history.
Leading 54-53, Espanola was taking the ball out-of-bounds under Los Lunas’ basket. A successful pass in bounds would have allowed the Sundevils a chance to take time off the clock and perhaps add to their lead by drawing a foul.
Leah DeAguero attempted to pass the ball to Lovato under the basket. Reaching for the ball, Lovato-whether it was because she was pushed, tripped or lost her balance-fell to the floor and out-of-bounds. Los Lunas had possession with 19.9 seconds left.
The Tigers got the ball inbounds to Marissa Watson, who drove hard to the basket. Going full speed, she banged her shot so hard off the backboard that it carried over the basket to the other side. There, the Tigers’ Mica Jenrette was positioned for a rebound. She grabbed the ball and put it back in the basket to give Los Lunas a 55-54 lead. Espanola couldn’t get off another shot and Espanola’s miraculous comeback ended not in victory, but with the Sundevils kneeling on the floor with tears in their eyes.
“It’s sad when you fight hard and come from 22-down (really 19) and feel like you were robbed,” Espanola Coach Cindy Roybal said. “It’s hard to take because we fought so hard.”
Coach Roybal felt that Lovato had been pushed before she fell out-of-bounds.
“When has Lexi just fallen down,” Coach Roybal said. “It’s a shame we had to lose this way.”
In the first half, the Sundevils looked nothing like the team that would come storming back in the second half. The Los Lunas defense trapped the Lady Sundevils in the corners and forced 12 turnovers while denying Espanola the middle of the court. That led to breakaway layups and open looks from the perimeter. The Tigers hit 4-of-8 three-pointers and shot 60-percent from the floor (15-of-25) in the first half. Espanola was just 5-of-18 from the floor and sank just one of their eight three-point attempts.
In the second half and trailing 39-20, the Sundevils began their surge. Annalynn Martinez hit a three-pointer. Lovato scored in the paint, then added a free throw. After a pair of free throws by Los Lunas, Kaylee Chavez got the Sundevils started again with a three-pointer. DeAguero hit a pair of free throws Lovato sandwiched a pair of old-fashioned, three-point plays around a Tigers’ basket. After another score by Lovato, the Sundevils had cut Los Lunas’ lead down to four points. Los Lunas led 45-39 going into the fourth quarter. Lovato had 13 points in the third quarter.
Espanola’s Alycia Archibeque drives against Los Lunas. Phot by George Morse for the Valley Daily Post
“We were just playing our hearts out,” DeAguero said. “We were playing like we had nothing to lose. We refused to let them walk all over us.”
In the fourth quarter, it looked like Los Lunas was going to rally and hold off the Sundevils when they took a 51-42 lead with less than five minutes left in the game. “The Beast” (Lovato) went back to work. After scoring inside, she completed her third old-fashioned, three-point play after sinking a short jumper. Alycia Archibeque then nailed a three-pointer. With 1:32 left in the game, Lovato hit a pair of free throws that gave the Sundevils a 52-51 lead. The Pit was rocking with the cheers of Espanola fans.
“Give Espanola all the credit in the world for coming back the way they did,” Los Lunas Coach Marty Zeller said. “Our defense definitely broke down. They got the ball into the middle of the floor at will. In the first half, they couldn’t do that.”
After a timeout, Los Lunas came back to take the lead after a basket by Hayley Torres. DeAguero then drove into the middle of the lane. Los Lunas, likely expecting her to dish off to Lovato, left her open for a soft, short jumper that she sank to give the Sundevils a 54-53 lead with 38 seconds left in the game.
“I’m so proud of these guys,” Coach Roybal said. “Not one person in this place thought we had a chance of coming back.”
On Los Lunas’ ensuing possession, the Tigers’ Amber Trujillo dribbled the ball off her foot near midcourt and it rolled out of bounds. That set the stage for the heart-breaking ending.
On the verge of breaking down into tears after the game, Coach Roybal would be saying goodbye to Lovato, DeAguero, Martinez, Archibeque and Brenda Garduno. Those seniors had formed the backbone of an outstanding three seasons that saw the Sundevils take three District 5A championships and provide their fans with some of the best girls basketball in the state. Those three years had all ended with losses in the semifinals of the state basketball tournament.
”That’s what hurt, because I wanted it so bad for them,” Coach Roybal said.