The superior inside play of the Rio Rancho Rams was too much for the Sundevils, as 18 offensive rebounds and a combined 36 points from Keshawn Banks and Derrick Reyes paced them to an 86-71 win, halting Española’s 15-0 start to this season.
The Sundevils (15-1) never found a combination that could counter the Rams’ post presence, but Española head coach James Branch was calm and introspective about the loss.
“If we were going to lose, it was gonna be [Saturday],” Branch said. “I’m sure they had a little fire under them, and I expected that.”
The fire stemmed from the Sundevils’ 72-54 win to take the championship game of Rio Rancho’s Jalene Berger Holiday Classic on Dec. 29, in which they held the Rams to just 16 second-half points to overcome a 38-29 halftime deficit. While Española might have felt like it was in familiar territory when it trailed 38-31 at the half, it certainly wasn’t the case.
The Sundevils played much of the second quarter with seniors Azaziah Salazar and J.P. Sena on the bench with three fouls, put a rotation on the floor they hadn’t used this season. Rio Rancho (10-8) took advantage of that, scoring the last seven points of the first half. Rio Rancho also dominated the paint, whether it was Banks’ nine points, Reyes’ seven and a 30-12 rebounding edge.
“That’s where complacency sets in, and I hate that word,” Branch said. “As a coach, you try to kick the in the tail and overcome it, but it’s hard.”
Yet, just like the first game, the Sundevils battled their way back into the game, using a 7-0 run midway through the third quarter to tie the score at 44-all on Isaiah Vigil’s steal and layup with 3:19 left. Just when it appeared they would do just enough to squeak by with a win, Rio Rancho caught fire.
The Rams could not miss for a 6-minute stretch, hitting 10 straight field goals. All but one of them came inside of 10 feet as Rio Rancho spread the court and attacked the lane. When Isaiah Chavez scored off the glass with 5:51 left, the Rams led 70-54.
“It’s hard to beat a team over and over,” sophomore Zach Mascareñas said. “Our defense wasn’t that good. We could have done better.”
The statistics bore that out. Rio Rancho made 17 of 24 shots from the field in the second half, compared to a 13-for-29 for the Sundevils. Not even the heroics of Christian Fernandez, who scored 16 of his team-high 25 points in the second half, could bail out Española.
Fernandez scored seven straight points at one point to get the Sundevils with 71-63 with 4:34 left, but Marks scored on a layup off a lob pass from Kenny Roland and Chavez hit a pair of free throws for a 75-63 lead with 3:25 left.
With the dreams of an undefeated season gone, Branch said the Sundevils can focus on the next task — District 2-5A play, which begins on Wednesday at Albuquerque Academy. He hopes the loss with catch his players’ attention.
“We’ve been hearing how great we are for the past two months already,” Branch said. “A little humility is good.”