ALBUQUERQUE— A frantic rally almost dug Los Lunas out of a deep fourth-quarter hole against Sandia in the 5A Boys State Basketball Championship semifinals, but the Tigers came up short 49-45 Thursday at the Pit in Albuquerque.
Both teams struggled offensively in the first half, with third-seeded LLHS leading 16-15 at the break.
“The game was playing into our hands,” said Los Lunas coach Travis Julian. “We were cutting down on transition buckets and offensive rebounds” — a Sandia strength.
Jalin Holland had 12 of the Tigers’ 16 first-half points, but the No. 2 Matadors clamped down on the sophomore guard the rest of the way.
“They’ve got some longer athletes. They were able to match up with him a little bit,” Julian said.
Holland finished with 18 points.
With Sandia increasing the pace of the game, the Matadors built a 27-19 lead after a steal and a Dalen Moyer three-pointer midway through the third period.
Despite shooting poorly from three-point range (4-26,) Los Lunas stayed close on the strength of buckets by Geleio Griego, Ezra Guest and Hunter Dixon. Sandia held a 30-26 advantage heading into the final eight minutes.
Things started to get away from the Tigers early in the fourth quarter. Sandia scored 10 straight points for the second time in the half to seemingly put the game away. It was 45-30 halfway through the final period.
But Julian went to a press and the Matadors started to wilt under the pressure.
“I didn’t think we could turn them over with the press. They’re so athletic,” Julian said. “I’m so proud of this group of kids. They’re a bunch of fighters.”
The furious rally continued with a steal by Holland, which led to a Guest layup. Guest, who has signed to play at Colorado Christian, had 12 points. It was 45-37 with less than three minutes to play.
With under a minute to go, a steal and basket by Rex Kinsey helped cut the lead to 47-42.
A Holland straight-on trey made it 47-45, but less than a second remained. Two Sandia free throws ended the miracle run, with Sandia advancing to the title game 49-45.
In the championship contest, the Matadors, coached by Danny Brown, will meet Volcano Vista, coached by his brother, Greg.
The Tigers finish 25-7 and return several key players, including Holland. However, LLHS loses seven seniors — Griego, Guest, Dixon, Noah Williams, Justin Olmstead, Dominick Toers-Bijns and Thomas Ordonez.
The feeling of playing in the legendary Pit will likely linger for those departing and returning.
“It’s invaluable to the program — you just can’t manufacture that experience,” Julian said. And the success of this season, “is a testament to this team and the senior group.”
Mike Powers spent more than 40 years as a television news and sports anchor, mostly in the Albuquerque market. He has won numerous awards including New Mexico Sportscaster of the Year. He covers a wide range of sports, including the Valencia County prep scene.