By George Morse
The Espanola Valley High School girls basketball team picked up a big road win with a 45-29 victory over Los Alamos High School Jan. 30 at Los Alamos. Behind a swarming defense that put constant pressure on the ball, the Lady Sundevils shut down the Lady Hilltoppers in the second half. Espanola held Los Alamos to just three points in the third quarter to take control of the game and lead 37-22 heading into the fourth quarter.
“This was a win we had to have,” Espanola Coach Joe Estrada said. “Drop this one and it puts us in a bad spot.”
The first half was a back-and-forth battle. In the first quarter, Los Alamos front-court trio of Natalie Gallegos, Becca Green and Michaela Gonzales scored all of Los Alamos points. Espanola answered from the free-throw line and from beyond the arc. The Sundevils went 4-for-4 from the free-throw line and canned a pair of three-pointers to lead 10-8 at the end of the first quarter.
Los Alamos came back to take the lead. A long pass down the court that Gallegos converted into a layup gave the Hilltoppers a 12-10 lead. A three-pointer by Miranda Salazar put the Sundevils back in front. Los Alamos took the lead, only to have Salazar can another three-pointer. With 12.9 seconds left in the first half, it looked like Los Alamos would go into the locker room with a 19-17 lead after two free throws by Green. There was just enough time for Espanola to get the ball downcourt to Destiny Valdez. She launched a three-pointer from the right elbow that fell through the net before the buzzer to give the Sundevils a 20-19 lead.
Espanola’s ball pressure was starting to take its toll. The Sundevils started the third quarter with a 6-0 run. After a basket by Green, Espanola senior Erika Medina provided a spark that would end up burning the Hilltoppers.
Coming in off the bench after Salazar had picked up three fouls, Medina snuck in the backdoor for a layup and drew a foul. She converted the free throw for an old-fashioned, three-point play. Following a turnover by Los Alamos, Medina knocked down a three-pointer from the corner. She scored six points that gave Espanola a 32-21 lead. Los Alamos was on the ropes.
“She really came through for us,” Coach Estrada said.
When Rhianna Padilla drained a three-pointer that put Espanola ahead 37-22, the Sundevils went into the fourth quarter with a 15-point lead. All they had to do was take care of the ball and take time off the clock to secure the win.
The Sundevils went into a perimeter-passing offense that took time off the clock, but the impatient Sundevils started to take shots they didn’t need. That allowed Los Alamos to cut the lead down to 37-29 with plenty of time still left. After catching a break when Green missed the front end of a one-and-one that could have cut the lead to six points, Coach Estrada explained to his team that patience was a virtue and they needed to have more of it.
The Sundevils did like they were supposed to do, weaving around and passing the ball while letting Los Alamos chase them around the court. Finally, Anita DeAguero drove to the basket and when the defense surrounded her, she dished off to Kiana Duran for an easy layup. After forcing a Los Alamos turnover, Duran once again was the one who finished, banking in a short shot from the lane. Espanola’s lead was now 42-29 and the weary Hilltoppers were all but done. DeAguero’s three-pointer was just icing on the cake.
“I think we’re hitting our stride,” Coach Estrada said. “You’ve got to be at your best this time of year. It’s the team we’ve been looking for all season.”
Espanola improved to 2-1 in District 2-4A with the victory. The Sundevils face Taos Feb. 4 in their next District 2-4A game at Espanola. The Sundevils will face Pojoaque Valley High School Feb. 7 in a key district game at Espanola.