Lady Eagles turn up the defensive heat to beat the Ravens

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Basketball coaches preach about the importance of defense precisely because of the way the fourth quarter went for the Belen and Rio Grande girls teams.

The Lady Eagles’ high-pressure defense was a big part of how host Belen held off Rio Grande, 53-44, to improve to 4-1 on the season. Their press and halfcourt trap, along with a few putbacks and free throws, helped them close out their first win over a Class 5A team in almost three years.

Jason W. Brooks-News-Bulletin photo: Belen’s Alexis Begay, left, defends against Rio Grande’s Jordaine Trujillo in Thursday’s contest. The Lady Eagles held on for a win against a physical Rio Grande team on Thursday, and are set to host a 7 p.m. game against Artesia on Friday, Dec. 21.

“By the end of a game, it’s hard to do what’s right,” said BHS coach Dereck Atencio. “That’s when execution is at a premium. We were just in our regular defensive set, and we executed well.”

Belen is set to host Artesia for a 7 p.m. game on Friday, Dec. 21. After the Christmas break, the Eagles are scheduled to compete in the Village Los Lunas Holiday Classic on Dec. 27, 28 and 29 at Los Lunas High.

Thursday’s physical game was won by the team that hit more of its free throws and stayed out of foul trouble. The Eagles were 10-of-16 from the foul line, and didn’t have anyone foul out, while the Ravens (0-5) lost two starters to fouls and were only 5-of-16 from the charity stripe.

Eagle sophomore Mariah Forde led all scorers with 24 points, including a pair of 3-pointers and two critical free throws in the final minute of the game.

Belen led most of the way, though its first-half lead was cut to three points by halftime, thanks to the Ravens’ 21-point second quarter. Rio Grande hung around, thanks to being able to get steals and good outlet passes and sharp shooting, but Belen took better care of the ball in the fourth quarter.

Rio Grande took its only lead of the game with 5:10 to play in the contest. A flagrant foul called against Belen’s Ari Valdez allowed Rio Grande’s Sofia Lujan to shoot two free throws, and she made one to give the Ravens a 42-41 edge.

However, Rio Grande’s Michelle Berrios and America Gutierrez each fouled out shortly thereafter. That allowed the Eagles to attack the middle more easily, and some stalls and sharp defensive plays helped Belen regain the lead and pull away.

Up 45-44, Belen stalled for nearly two minutes, and BHS senior Jordan Rodriguez ended up putting in an offensive rebound with 1:20 left. The last four Rio Grande possessions resulted in two steals, a missed 12-footer, and a backcourt violation forced by the Eagles’ trap.

Meanwhile, Forde hit three of four free throws, and Kristian Sainz hit another, to put Belen up 51-44.

The end of the game was marred by an incident involving Rodriguez. She ended up with the ball with time winding down, and was fouled hard by Rio Grande’s Jordaine Trujillo with only one second left. Rodriguez made the layup, but left the game with a bloody, and possibly broken, nose.

Valdez took and missed the final free-throw attempt just before the final buzzer.

“Jordan is a tough kid,” said Atencio. “This shows how physically and mentally ready a senior can be.”

Dailene Lujan led Rio Grande with 15 points, while Trujillo had 14.

Sainz scored 16 points for the Eagles in what Atencio called “her most complete game so far” in the young season.

The win marked the first time the Class 4A Eagles had beaten a 5A team since a 49-42 win at Albuquerque High on Jan. 15, 2010.

“Us and Rio are similar, scrappy teams,” said Atencio after the contest. “Their coach now, Mark Warren, is a high-quality coach, who is trying to do what we’re trying to do — have some success.”

Next up for the Eagles will be Artesia — one of the taller teams Belen will face before district. The Lady Bulldogs have 11 players on their roster who are 5-feet, 8-inches or taller.

The Artesia game is both a pack-the-gym promotion and part of a charity food drive. Each fan who brings a non-perishable food item to the door will be admitted for free. The food will be donated to the Belen Area Food Pantry. All Eagle fans are encouraged to wear maroon.

At the Los Lunas tourney, the Eagles’ first-round opponent, on Thursday, Dec. 27, will also be Artesia.


-- Email the author at jbrooks@news-bulletin.com.