St. Pius ends Tigers’ season

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Coach Travis Julian had honest aspirations of taking home a state title this week at the Class 4A boys basketball championships, but St. Pius had some aspirations of their own.

In the end, it was the Sartans’ deliberate play that ruled the day in the 66-60 semifinal win over the Tigers Thursday afternoon.

Mike Stearns-News-Bulletin photo: Los Lunas center Quentin Mullins fakes a Capital defender during the Tigers’ quarterfinal win over the Jaguars on Wednesday. Los Lunas was eliminated on Thursday by St. Pius.

In the final four minutes of the game, Los Lunas pulled to within three points five times. St. Pius answered every time to pull back to a five- or six-point lead.

The Sartans will meet Albuquerque Academy for the state championship on Saturday afternoon.

Los Lunas finished the season with an excellent 24-6 mark. The loss to St. Pius end an 18-game winning streak. The Tigers advanced to the semifinals with a 6-23 win over Capital.

Sartans coach Damian Segura was very complimentary of the Tigers and their athletic play. He noted that their team speed was even better than he thought just watching them play. It was different once they got on the court.

Los Lunas jumped out to a 14-9 lead, but indications that it would not be the Tigers’ day came at the end of the first quarter.

Down 16-14, Belen native Micah Sanchez hit a three launched from well beyond three-quarter court. The buzzer-beater gave St. Pius a 17-16 edge.

“You have to prepare for everything,” said Segura. “They are well rounded and do everything well.”

Los Lunas was not able to feed off of St. Pius’ errors as the Sartans built a 34-25 halftime lead.

Julian agreed with Sartan coach Segura that St. Pius did not allow the Tigers’ athleticism to be a factor.

St. Pius only had 10 turnovers in the game.

“We never could get anything off of our defense,” said Julian. “They didn’t turn the ball over so we never got the kick start to our offense. We feed off of our defense.”

Los Lunas quickly cut into the Sartan lead in the early part of the third quarter.

On consecutive trips, Ben Romero and Jacob Holland both drove the lane, sank twisting layins, and went to line for the old-fashioned three-point play.

Los Lunas only trailed 39-36.

Mike Stearns-News-Bulletin photo: Los Lunas Senior Ben Romero goes up for a lay in during a fast break against St. Pius in the Class 4A semifinals on Thursday. St. Pius beat the Tigers in a close game, 66-60, to advance and face Albuquerque Academy on Saturday for the state title.

“Coach told us that we had to get to the rim,” said Romero. “He said good things would happen if we drove it inside.”

Holland added that the fouls created by that type of offense could have turned the game around.

“I just tried to put pressure on them,” said Holland. “If we get to the rim, then we can score, or create a foul and score that way.”

But St. Pius did not give in to the pressure. They played tight defense inside, forcing the Tigers to shoot threes.

Holland and Chris Sanchez each hit two treys and finished with 16 points each. Romero had 14 points.

Micah Sanchez hit three 3-pointers for St. Pius. His long pass with 12 seconds left to Brandon Altamirano led to the layup that sealed the win.

“It is great to play against them,” said Sanchez, who drives to school at St. Pius from Valencia County each day. “I grew up playing against them, all through middle school. It was a shame that one of us had to lose. I hate that part of it.”

Both Romero and Julian, a father-son tandem that came to Los Lunas this year, were thankful for the community support. They both noted that it was nothing like Manzano in Albuquerque.

“I can’t say enough about his community and the support they gave to us,” said Julian. “We had escorts out of town with police cars and fire trucks, sirens and everything. I never got anything like that at Manzano. It is the difference between a small town and the big city.”

Romero was a little more emotional, recounting his reunion with his childhood friends.

“Coming back here, we just tried to create a brotherhood,” said Romero, with eyes red from hugs and tears in the locker room. “That is what I think we did. I love these guys. They are all my brothers and they always will be. We have created something for a lifetime.”

Holland was grateful to be in the brotherhood.

“They taught me that this is what the expectation is,” said the junior guard. “I mean, next year, if we don’t make it as far as we made it this year, then it is a failure.”

Los Lunas 60, Capital 25

The Tigers were able to create turnovers and run the fast break against Capital. They only had one 3-pointer, because they generated most of their offense in transition.

“The best offense comes from our defense,” said Romero. “We were able to get out on offense because we made defensive stops. We got layups because Chris (Sanchez) and Jacob (Holland) got steals.

Even coach Julian was amazed at the quickness and how dominant the Tiger defense was over a fairly athletic Capital team.

“We have athletes,” said Julian. “I can’t take credit for that. We have tremendous team speed.”

Sanchez credited his teammates for keeping the flow of the game going and encouraging the staunch defensive effort.

“We say to ourselves in the huddle that we just have to play our game,” said Sanchez. “The difference is our hard work ethic. Coach Julian pushes us every single day, it never lets up.”

Romero, who led the scoring with 16 points, said there should be no doubt that Los Lunas belongs with the elite 4A teams.

“We wanted to make a statement. We wanted to prove to everyone that we belonged,” said Romero. “We didn’t have a lot of experience in the Pit and I think people doubted us.”


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