Lady Sundevils Beat Belen, Headed to the Pit

by Staff Reporter / Mar 05, 2018 / comments
Española's  Meranda Salazar drives to the basket against Belen. Photo by George Morse for the Valley Daily Post

Lady Sundevils Beat Belen, Headed to the Pit

By George Morse Sports and Outdoors

Valley Daily Post 2018 State Tournament Coverage is brought to you in partnership with KDCE Radio 

They’re young, mostly-inexperienced and they’re headed to the Pit.

Showing a resiliency that one might not expect from a team that starts three freshmen and not a single senior, the Española Valley High School Lady Sundevils withstood the challenge from Belen High School and won their opening-round game of the Class 5A state basketball tournament March 2 at Espanola. The Sundevils took a 49-42 victory, holding off the Lady Eagles after Belen had cut Espanola’s lead down to just one point with less than four minutes left in the game and Española still looking for its first points of the fourth quarter.

Leading 39-35 going into the fourth quarter, Española spread its offense and passed the ball around the perimeter to take time off the clock. It worked up to a point as the minutes in the fourth quarter ticked away, but the Sundevils weren’t scoring any points. A basket by Belen cut Espanola’s lead to two points and the Eagles had a chance to tie the game with 4:25 left to play. Belen’s Sydney Valdez made one of her two free throws, leaving the Sundevils clinging to a one-point lead.

Española freshman Destiny Valdez was at the free-throw line with 3:46 left in the game. She showed obvious disappointment after missing her first free throw, but calmly buried the next one. It was Espanola’s first point of the fourth quarter, giving the Sundevils a two-point lead.

Belen’s Olivia King had another chance to tie the game moments later. She made her first free throw, but missed her second. The ball ended up in the hands of Española freshman Meranda Salazar.

Espanola’s Meranda Salazar drives against Belen. Photo by George Morse for the Valley Daily Post

Salazar had one thing on her mind and it wasn’t passing the ball around. She took the ball straight to the basket and sank a layup that gave Española a 42-39 lead.

“I felt we needed to score more instead of holding the ball,” Salazar said. “We needed to get away from the game being so close.”

After Belen missed a shot, Valdez was back at the line shooting the front end of a one-and-one after being fouled on a rebound. This time, she coolly buried both free throws to give Española a 44-39 lead. The Eagles showed some signs of panicking. Belen missed two free throws and Española junior Kaylee Chavez was fouled.

Espanola’s Kaylee Chavez drives between two Belen defenders in Espanola’s 49-42 victory in the opening round of the Class 5A state basketball tournament March 2 at Espanola. Photo by George Morse for the Valley Daily Post

Chavez, the lone returning starter from last season, missed the front end of a one-and-one. Belen threw up a hurried three-pointer that missed and Chavez was back on the line with1:02 left in the game. This time, she made one of her two free throws to give Española a 45-39 lead.

Belen threw up several shots before Brittany Saiz dropped in a three-pointer to cut Espanola’s lead in half 45-42. With 19.7 seconds left, Chavez was at the free-throw line again. This time, she buried both to give Española a 47-42 lead.

Espanola’s Anita DeAguero eyes the basket against Belen. Photo by George Morse for the Valley Daily Post

Belen missed again and Espanola’s Jaylynn Padilla sank two more free throws to seal the Sundevils’ 49-42 victory. Española advanced to the Class 5A state quarterfinals at the Pit in Albuquerque. Española improved to 16-11 on the season.

The Sundevils turned their season around after Head Coach Johnny Abeyta was placed on administrative leave and Bobby Romero was named interim Head Coach. Romero’s positive attitude and supportive leadership is what pushed the team to succeed. The Sundevils have won five games in a row and eight of their last nine games.

“Without his (Romero) positivity, we wouldn’t be where we are at today,” Salazar said.

For Romero, it was a matter of building his young team’s confidence,

“I told them ‘Believe in yourself as much as I believe in you,’” Coach Romero said.

Española had taken the lead in the first quarter 10-8 after a three-pointer by Kaylinn Martinez, who had 11 points in the first half. The Sundevils extended their lead to 20-12 after three-pointers by Martinez and Chavez. Española senior Samantha Gasca came into the game and promptly nailed another three-pointer to put the Sundevils ahead 27-19 and Española led 27-21 at halftime.

Espanola’s Meranda Salazar drives against the Belen Lady Eagles. Photo by George Morse for the Valley Daily Post

Belen chipped away at the lead in the third quarter and had a couple of three-pointers to trail by just four points at the end of the third quarter. The slow start to the fourth quarter, with Española passing the ball and passing up shots, had the Sundevils’ fans squirming in their seats until Salazar decided it was time for a spark.

“We had promised the seniors (Gasca, Kayla DeVargas) that we would get them there (the Pit),” Salazar said. “That’s where we’re headed.”