Sundevils Second-Half Surge Sinks Capital

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Española’s Ryan Trujillo goes to the basket against Capital. Photo by George Morse for the Valley Daily Post

Sundevils Second-Half Surge Sinks Capital

By George Morse Sports and Outdoors

The Española Valley High School Sundevils and their coach James Branch have been saying all season long that defense was going to be the key to their success this season. Despite a high-powered offense that averaged 94 points–per-game in the Sundevils’ final four regular season games, it was Española’s defense that turned the tide in the District 2-5A tournament championship game Feb. 24 at Española.

Trailing 37-29 at halftime against Capital High School, the Sundevils used a smothering 2-3 trapping zone defense to dominate the third quarter. Española outscored the 28-5 to take a 57-42 lead into the fourth quarter and settled for a 75-63 victory after leading by as much as 21 points in the fourth quarter.

“In the first half, they (Capital) wanted it more,” Española senior Azaziah Salazar said. “We switched to ‘The Swarm” and we wanted it more in the second half.”

Española’s Azaziah Salazar scores for the Sundevils. Photo by George Morse for the Valley Daily Post

“The Swarm” is the name Coach Branch has given to the defense that Española came out with to start the third quarter. He had been loath to use it and was hoping to play his cards close to his chest, but Capital forced him to change his tactics.

“Give them (Capital) a little credit,” Coach Branch said. “They’re the fourth-ranked team in the state. I didn’t want to show it, but I sure as hell didn’t want to lose the district championship at home.”

Española’s Azaziah Salazar puts up a shot against Capital. Photo by George Morse for the Valley Daily Post

The Jaguars had come out strong in the first half. With the score tied 10-10 in the first quarter, Capital put together a 7-2 run that ended with a three-pointer by Aaron Garcia. Garcia had 10 first-quarter points as Capital took a 17-12 lead.

The Sundevils were missing layups and their three-pointers weren’t falling through the net in the second quarter. Frustration started to creep into the Sundevils’ play and Española was hit with a pair of technical fouls. Capital took a 34-20 lead. The Sundevils found their poise and produced a 9-0 run that included 7-of-8 from the free-throw line. Capital’s Brandon Saiz hit a pair of free throws to give the Jaguars a 37-29 lead at halftime.

The Sundevils came out “Swarming” to start the third quarter. Española started with a 6-0 run that included a steal and layup by Ryan Trujillo, followed by another turnover and a layup by J. P. Sena.

Española’s J. P. Sena scores against Capital. Photo by George Morse for the Valley Daily Post

Capital Coach Ben Gomez quickly called a time out but it did little to slow down Española. After a free throw by Capital, the roof caved in on the Jaguars as the Sundevils would score 16 unanswered points.

“We had worked on that defense all week,” senior Christian Fernandez said.

Española’s Christian Fernandez goes up for two points against the Jaguars. Photo by George Morse for the Valley Daily Post

A pair of free throws by Salazar after a five-second call against Capital gave Española a 40-38 lead with 4:15 left in the third quarter. The Jaguars couldn’t find a way to score against the Española’s defense, which swarmed to the ball and created turnover after turnover. Senior sharpshooter Martin Gracia found the range for the Sundevils and stroked a pair of three-pointers around two more free throws from Salazar to extend Española’s lead to 48-38. With the deafening level of cheers from the near-sellout crowd of Española fans rising with each basket, Gracia nailed his third three-pointer of the third quarter and pounded his chest as Española took a 54-40 lead.

“I wanted to provide a spark for the team,” Gracia Said. “I was shooting with confidence.”

Capital first field goal of the third quarter of the second half didn’t fall through the net until just 48 seconds remained in the third quarter. Zach Mascarenas’ old-fashioned, three-point play gave Española a 57-42 lead heading into the fourth quarter.

Española’s J. P. Sena reaches for a rebound against Capital. Photo by George Morse for the Valley Daily Post

Gracia’s layup with 5:20 left in the game gave the Sundevils a 66-45 lead, their biggest of the game. Capital couldn’t keep the Sundevils  from getting to the basket and was forced to foul to prevent layups. Three Jaguars fouled out of the game. Española paraded to the free-throw line and sank 15-of-20 free throws in the fourth quarter. For the game, the Sundevils sank 36-of-48 free throws.

Española had emptied its bench and not a starter was on the floor when the final buzzer sounded of Española’s 75-63 victory.

“We just needed to settle down and get back to doing what we do,” Fernandez said.

Sena had 15 points for the Sundevils to lead a quintet of players that scored in double figures for Española. Salazar scored 14 points and Fernandez had 13 points for Española. Gracia finished with 12 points with all of them coming in the second half. Trujillo scored 11 points for the Sundevils.

Española has been ranked at the top of Class 5A all season long and it was no surprise when they received the number one seed in the Class 5A state tournament. The Sundevils will face 16th-seeded Valencia High School Saturday in the opening round of the state tournament.

Coach Branch told his team he was pleased with their resiliency after the victory, but reminded the team that this was the last game they would play that they didn’t have to win and now the season was entering the “one-and-done” phase where a loss brings the season to an abrupt end.

“We have to take it one game at a time if we’re going to win this thing,” he said to the team.

Congratulations Sundevils! Photo by George Morse for the Valley Daily Post