Featured photo: West Mesa girls basketball players celebrate after beating top-seeded Hobbs for the 5A state title. (Mark Smith)
By Mark Smith
Editor in Chief
There are Pit games and there are Pit games.
Saturday was a one of the latter.
On one of the most electrifying, crazed and downright historic days Pit history, the Atrisco Heritage and Valley boys and the West Mesa girls basketball teams highlighted a day that won’t soon be forgotten.
Especially by the thousands upon thousands who attended the final day of the New Mexico State high school basketball championships.
It’s impossible to know exactly how many passed through the gates of the day-long event — which began with an 8 a.m. game with Pecos winning the 2A boys crown and ended after 10 p.m. with Atrisco retaining its boys Class 5A title — because a ticket for one game got you into all seven. And there were passes a plenty for coaches, workers, administrators, media and the like — and the Pit was packed throughout.
All I know, is while sitting next to ESPN Radio’s Joe O’Neill and the Journal’s James Yodice — seats Yodice and I have covered games from since the early 1980s — we couldn’t find but a handful of empty seats in the final game of the night. And those seats were filled in the second half by the hundreds who were in standing room only in the first half.
It was a throwback to the glory days of the Pit — and we’re talking when the capacity was 18,000-plus, before former UNM athletic director Paul Krebs and sidekick Tim Cass and ex-UNM hoop coach Steve “Lobo for Life” Alford dismantled the place.
On this day, however, it was a total blast from the past. It looked every bit of 13,000-14,000 to us, because nobody could spread out like they do so many times a UNM games in the bench seats. There were far more folks, and it was far louder than the 12,000 the university reports on most games.
Loud? Listen below.
We were in the middle on the old press row on the east side, and it was non-stop thunder until halftime. After halftime, it got louder.
I was hoarse after the games, just trying to talk to the guys right next to me — one being Enchantment Sports writer Russell Gurule.
Santa Fe had two wide-open 3s, off of beautifully executed plays in the final minute by third-year coach Zack Cole, that could have given the Demons the lead. If either fell, we were convince that roof — the one that wasn’t constructed heartily enough to support a hanging scoreboard — would have fallen as well.
Yes, it was that loud.
Atrisco fans filled the north side of the Pit while Santa Fe filled the south — as well as the east and west.
In was insanity. It was sports at its purest. There were no Varsity Blues scandals, corrupt coaches or $300-million players.
It was sport as it is meant to be,
It was fabulous.
No, this wasn’t just an all-time “Pit Game” — as former, disgraced Lobo basketball coach Dave Bliss described during especially mind-numbing, ear-shattering, hair-raising games that the Lobos played — it was a whole slew of Pit Games.
It was an all-time Pit Day.
So many things fell into place for dream-style matchups on the final day in Dreamstyle.
Here’s a quick look at some, and the Enchantment Sports staff and it’s iPhone photography — hey, we’re reporters, not professional camera clickers — from Saturday. We’ll come back with more later today (March 17) and probably on Monday from the incredible week that was.
Thanks to the great work by staff writers Gurule and Ed Nunez on Saturday, and contributors Sebastian Noel and Chris Jackson during the week.
ATRISCO 61, SANTA FE 58: (By Russell Gurule) — The 5A State Championship game delivered as advertised. The City Different challenged the Duke City to be called No. 1 in the state of New Mexico. The Pit hadn’t rocked like this in quite some time. Droves of people from Santa Fe and around the Metro went through the turnstiles to give this game a true championship atmosphere. You could feel the intensity go through the Pit with many dreams waiting to come true.
Both teams entered the floor to loud thunderous applause that would give anybody of any age goosebumps.
The game started with both teams firing away without conscience. It became obvious that tension was a guest on both sides as neither could put a digit on the scoreboard for the first minute.
Then the flood gates opened as tension decided to leave the building. Joziah Ramos scored the first basket to give Atrisco the lead. From that point, scoring was back-and-forth. Then Atrisco’s Dominic Rivas hit three 3s to give the Jaguars the edge. Santa Fe responded with Cody Garcia’s 3 to end the first quarter at 15-
In the second quarter each team traded baskets matching 3-pointer for 3-pointer, ending up in several ties.
Atrisco was only able to keep a lead of two points for a majority of the second quarter. Santa Fe’s Antonio Lovato was hot in the second quarter with seven points. Marquis Crawford’s back-to-back baskets helped the Jaguars obtain a 31-29 lead at halftime as they ran up the ramp full of energy.
Dominic Rivas of Atrisco finished the half with a blistering 15 points. Santa Fe’s Antonio Lovato had 10 points.
The third quarter began with the Demons tying it on their first possession, and several lead-changes occurred as neither team could take control.
Atrisco’s Isaiah Brooks started to get hot with key baskets during the quarter, but it was teammate Ramos of who grabbed the reins with seven points in the period to give Atrisco a 42-40 lead heading to the frenzied final quarter.
The fourth quarter began with rain falling in The Pit nets like last weeks weather. There were 3s everywhere as Santa Fe’s Christian Kavanaugh and Carlos Dassaro fired away and Atrisco’s Dominick Rivas continued his onslaught from 3-point land. Ramos added to the brilliance with shots of his own.
Neither team had taken ownership of the lead for long. It was like a hot potato. Then Santa Fe’s Cody Garcia showed his shooting ability with two 3s to counter. Each team pressed the whole game, but it was turned up a notch on the dial
in the final minutes.
Atrisco head coach Adrian Ortega began to manage the game with key timeouts saving his Jaguars from turnovers. Isiah Brooks and DeMarcus Sutphen both went to the line several times to keep the Jags ahead.
Santa Fe’s Cruz Martinez gave it a good shot at the end. But it wasn’t enough as Atrisco Heritage becomes back-to-back state champions with the 61-58 victory.
Atrisco’s top scorers were Ramos with 22 points, Rivas with 18 points, and Isiah Brooks with 11.
Santa Fe’s top scorers were Antonio Lovato with 14 points, Cody Garcia with 14 points, and Dassaro and Cruz Martinez with 10 points each.
Class 5A girls
(3) WEST MESA 63, (1) HOBBS 51: (By Mark Smith) Forget the final margin, this one also came down to the last minute — although that didn’t look possible after the Eagles (28-3) dominated much of the opening half.
Hobbs spotted West Mesa (27-3) a 10-5 lead with three minutes left in the first quarter, then delivered what looked like an early knockout.
The Eagles’ MacKenzye Gibson drained four 3s during a memorizing 21-0 Hobbs blitz for a 26-10 lead. But West Mesa coach Manny Otero — a former Albuquerque High sensation and college standout — altered his defense and held Gibson in check the rest of the way.
The Mustangs still had to play catch up, which they did behind Maiah Rivas, Esperanza Varoz (15 points, 11-12 from the line) Emily Burk (10 points, seven rebounds), Jazmin Cordova (nine points, four rebounds) and Cece Barela (six points, six rebounds).
The Mustangs cut it to 43-42 heading in the fourth quarter, then it was the Rivas show.
Her 3 with 6:37 put West Mesa up 46-44. Her 3 with just under five minutes remaining broke a 48-48 tie. She came right back with a great reverse layup off the break and added a pull-up jumper with 2:11 left.
The enormous crowd of Mustangs fans could sense the title, and Varoz and Rivas made it a reality with six straight free throws.
Rivas had a game-high 23 points, four rebounds and two assists — and added a lot of tears and smiles after the game.
Oh yeah, and a blue trophy.
Class 4A boys
(7) VALLEY 37 (1) LOS LUNAS 34: (By Mark Smith) Good friends Joe Coleman and Travis Julian weren’t scheduled to meet like this.
Sure, they were on opposite sides of the bracket — but also on the opposite sides of the 4A world this season. Valley entered the state tournament 13-13; Los Lunas 24-3.
The Vikings needed overtime to beat 10th-seeded Highland in the first round a week earlier. But they then shocked second-seeded an six-time champion Hope Christian in the quarterfinals and third-seeded Silver (24-4 at the time) in Thursday’s semifinals.
But against Los Lunas? Few gave Coleman’s Vikings more than a puncher’s chance.
Then again, that’s why the toss up the ball — and that’s what makes state great.
The entire first half was tight, well-played and quick. There were only two free throws and the Vikings were in front 20-17 at intermission. Another mostly foul-free third quarter ended with Los Lunas up 29-27, with Tiger standout Zanen Zeller scoring eight in the period.
Los Lunas led 32-27 in the fourth quarter, but Valley used a 6-0 run to get back on top 33-32 — the last two points on a strong inside move by Jevon Baker. But the Tigers’ Aj Garcia drove right back to put his team on top 34-33 with 1:40 remaining.
Just 20 second later, Seyi Oyeku pounded it rough back into the paint for a score to give Valley a 35-34 lead and two free throws made it 37-34 with less than 3 seconds left.
After a time out, the Tigers heaved a long inbounds pass that bounced off of players hands and landed right to Zeller. He turned and had an open look at the top of the key to tie it. But It bounced off the back of the rim, and Coleman’s Vikings had the shocker — and he looked to the sky, probably in celebration with his late brother, Jim.
Oyeku had a game-high 19 points while Baker had nine points and five rebounds. The slick-passing Zeller led Los Lunas with 16 points and five rebounds, but had just one assist.
For Coleman, whose brother Jim — a three-sports superstar at Valley and star Lobo baseball player — died of a heart attack in November at age 47 — it was an amazing ending to a trying and emotional season.
In other title games:
3A: (3) Hot Springs 56, Santa Fe Indian School 54.
2A: (1) Pecos 58, (3) Newcomb 37.
1A: (5) Melrose 54, (2) Fort Sumner 50
4A: (2) Los Lunas 49, (1) Kirtland Central 43 (Friday)
2A: (3) Pecos 53, (8) Mescalero Apache 46 (Friday)
1A: (2) Tatum 57, (1) Melrose 48
Mark Smith has worked in New Mexico sports media for more than four decades, and is one of the most decorated sports journalists in state history. Smith has won more than 30 combined awards in print, television and radio. He is the editor in chief of Enchantment Sports. Contact him at mark.enchantmentsportsNM@gmail.com.