The Mora High School varsity boys basketball team defeated defending champion Pecos High School 73-67 in the championship game of the Northern Rio Grande basketball tournament Jan. 5 at Pojoaque Valley High School. The third time was the charm for the Rangers, who had previously lost twice to the Panthers during the season.
Mora Makes It Happen, Defeats Defending Champs
By George Morse
The final score was Mora High School 73, Pecos High School 67 in the championship game of the 71st Northern Rio Grande boys basketball tournament Jan. 5 at Pojoaque Valley High School. It’s safe to say that the score was not what many who packed Ben Lujan Gym expected.
Pecos was the defending two-time tournament champion and two-time defending Class 3A state champion. They had already faced the Rangers twice during the season and both times come away with decisive victories. The Panthers had pounded their opponents in the first two rounds of the tournament, defeating Penasco High School 86-13 in the opening round and Dulce High School 88-25 in the semifinals Plainly put, the powerful Panthers looked unbeatable.
Mora had a tougher trip to the championship game. The Rangers needed a 15-0 run in the fourth quarter with four minutes left in the game to overcome a 46-36 lead by a stingy Escalante High School team Jan. 3 in the opening round. In the semifinals Jan. 4, Mora had to hold off McCurdy Charter School in the fourth quarter after the Bobcats had cut an 11-point lead down to just three points 48-45 with four minutes left in the game. The Rangers did it by going 6-of-6 from the free-throw line for a 63-55 victory.
Mora was also having to deal with a new coach. Marco Sanchez was named coach Jan. 2 after Carlos Arellano was abruptly fired. He had just one practice with the team before they faced Escalante in the opening round. Sanchez had been head coach at Mora during the 2014-2015 season.
“It’s been a ride,” Sanchez said after winning the championship. ”Tomorrow, I’m going to wake up and say ‘Oh my God, we really did it.’”
He gave credit to his players.
“This is an intelligent basketball team,” Coach Sanchez said. “They deserve it.”
Pecos plays at a faster-than-fast pace, pressing fullcourt, creating turnovers and scoring in transition. A signature moment in a typical Pecos game is when the Panthers use that pace to blitz the opponent with a flurry of points. Forced to play catchup, the other team now loses its patience and starts to force up shots. That leads to more turnovers and Pecos would pull away to big victories.
That didn’t happen against Mora. The Rangers were able to handle the Pecos press and whenever the Panthers would land a punch, Mora would hit back. In the first quarter, the Rangers kept the Panthers from pulling away and the score was 15-14 in favor of Pecos. The teams traded blows until Mora’s Jerome Pacheco scored on a driving layup to give Rangers a 25-24 lead. Carlos Muller Jr. then knocked down a three-pointer to extend the lead to four points. After a basket by Pecos’ Xavier Padilla, Pacheco scored on a fast break to give the Rangers a 30-26 lead at halftime. Not used to trailing at the break, the Panthers looked a little bit bewildered as they headed to the locker room.
“We changed from a 1-3-1 (defense) to a 2-1-2 defense and didn’t change it one bit,” Coach Sanchez said. ”My assistant coaches and I got together and talked about what we could change. My assistant coaches got this done.”
If Pecos was bewildered at halftime, they would be shocked in the third quarter. It would be Muller who would provide the jolt.
It may have been a sign of things to come when the Panthers Omar Dominguez missed a wide open layup in the third quarter. With the score tied 32-32, Muller buried a three-pointer from the corner, then knocked down another three-point bomb from the same spot for a 38-34 lead by the Rangers.
Pecos came back to take a 42-40 lead. Mora fought back and Muller provided the ammunition, nailing another three-pointer to put the Rangers back in to the lead. Two free throws by Roderick Martinez gave Mora a 45-42 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
The Rangers used their long-range success to help open up the Panthers defense and the Rangers’ guards Carlos Arellano, Kenny Martinez and Roderick Martinez were finding lanes to drive through. When not making layups, they were drawing fouls and hitting free throws. Mora put together an 8-2 run and took their biggest lead of the game 53-44 to start the fourth quarter. Pecos came back. Anthony Armijo hit the first of three three-pointers he would sink in the fourth quarter. The Panthers had cut the lead to 54-51 when Muller struck again, burying his fifth three-pointer. Roderick Martinez then scored on a layup to put Mora ahead 59-51.
Armijo nailed two more three-pointers. His third made the score 63-60 in favor of the Rangers and Pecos missed another opportunity to cut into the lead or tie the game. Kenny Martinez made them pay by sinking two free throws. A three-pointer by Dominguez cut Mora’s lead down to two points 65-63 and Pecos fans were cheering hard after the Panthers got the ball back on a turnover.
The excitement was short-lived, as Mora forced a Pecos turnover and cashed in on two free throws by Arellano. Time was starting to become a factor and after Pecos missed a jumper, Arellano drilled two more free throws with 41.3 seconds left. Just nine seconds later, Muller put the cap on his 23-point performance by nailing two more free throws to give Mora a 71-63 lead.
“He (Muller) had two kind of off games in the first two rounds,” Coach Sanchez said. “Today, he had a different look and I knew he was ready.”
Pecos scored to make it 71-65. Arellano then sealed Mora’s stunning victory with two more free throws. He would finish the game sinking 10-of-10 from the free-throw line and the Rangers were a sizzling 25-of-28 from the charity stripe. Mora took a 73-65 victory that perhaps only the Rangers expected to happen.
“Everybody believed in each other,” Pacheco said. “We knew we were going to get the win. We wanted to beat them. We were just hungry for it.”
Muller led all scorers with 23 points. Arellano finished with 14 points. Pacheco had 13 points and Roderick Martinez 12 points for the Rangers.
Armijo and Padilla each scored 18 points to pace the Panthers. Ismael Villegas had 17 points and Dominguez 12 points for Pecos.
Pecos Coach Ira Harge Jr. was inducted into the Northern Rio Grande Hall of Fame at halftime of the championship game. He felt his team was over-confident coming into the game.
”We showed up like we had won the game already,” Coach Harge said. “Like we’d waltz to the win the third time. It’s hard to beat a team three times. (Mora) was very focused and we weren’t.”
It would be great if these two teams could tangle again in district play, but Mora belongs to District 5-2A, while Pecos is part of District 7-2A. If the two teams meet again, it will be in the Class 2A state basketball tournament.
Mora's Jerome Pacheco smothers Pecos'Anthony Armijo as he tries to haul in a rebound (photo by Roman Martinez Jr.). Mora's Roderick Martinez tries to stop Pecos' Xavier Padilla from going to the basket.(photo by Roman Martinez Jr.). Mora's Jerome Pasilla blocks the shot of McCurdy's Ernesto Martinez as he drives to the basket. The Ranger defeated the Bobcats 63-55 in the semifinals of the Northern Rio Grande basketball tournament Jan. 4 at Pojoaque Valley High School. The Mora Rangers surround the basket waiting for a rebound against McCurdy Charter School in the semifinals of the Northern Rio Grande basketball tournament.