Defense leads Tigers to state title

........................................................................................................................................................................................

Roswell had gained momentum when halftime arrived at the Class 4A girls basketball state championship on Friday night.

But it would not be nearly enough as Los Lunas thumped the defending state runners-up, 51-27, to claim the blue trophy that is representative of the best girls Class 4A basketball team in the state of New Mexico.

Mike Stearns-News-Bulletin photo: Lifting the blue trophy, the Lady Tigers celebrate their first basketball state title in the history of the program. Coach Marty Zeller led the team to a 28-4 season record, a District 6-4A championship and a state title win over Roswell in the Pit on Friday.

The Coyotes had closed a Los Lunas 15-2 first quarter lead to just four points at the break, 20-16.

Los Lunas then put in one of the most dominating performances in the history of the state tournament when they outscored Roswell 18-0 in the third quarter.

Both teams came out cold to start the second half. Senior Nikki Hathoot got free on the right wing and drilled a 3-pointer to start the third-quarter landslide.

Fellow senior Tinaya Murphy hit two 3-pointers and junior Teige Zeller added in six from the inside and Los Lunas built a 38-16 lead over the Coyotes entering the final period.

“I was real hesitant to take the shot,” said Hathoot. “I hadn’t been shooting 3-pointers very well in the tournament.”

The trey was the key shot of the game as it opened a flood of scoring that Roswell could not stop.

Murphy was 3-for-6 from behind the arc and led the Tigers with 18 points. Zeller scored 11 points, Hathoot had seven and Sanae Gaerlan hit two treys for six points.

“It was all about the footwork,” said Gaerlan of the hot 3-point shooting. “We feed the ball so well to each other. I had time to set my feet. That is why they went in.”

Mike Stearns-News-Bulletin photo: Los Lunas Center Teige Zeller skies for two of her 11 points during Friday night’s Class 4A state championship win over Roswell, 51-27.

Murphy, who hit four treys in the Los Alamos game, noted that she had to refocus after the St. Pius contest.

“I jinxed myself in the second game (of the state tournament),” said Murphy. “I was 0-for-8. I got it back right in this game.”

Teige Zeller commented on the teams’ defensive effort.

“Defense is our whole game,” said Zeller. “So much of our offense is created by the defense. We played great defense tonight.”

Coach Marty Zeller talked about the defense and how it was a total team effort, even going beyond the starting five.

“Probably our two best defenders are Alyssa Vigil and Jordan Holland,” said Zeller. “They give us a lift every time they are on the floor.”

He also thanked Katie Inman, the first option off the bench, for playing a vital role coming off the bench.

“She could have been a starter and should have been,” said Zeller, noting that Inman showed hustle and sparked the club. “When Katie steps on the floor, she is an intimidating factor for every guard in the state.”

Inman was quick to say that the whole team had a part in the state title season.

“Everyone wanted it, from the last bench players to the starting five — we all wanted it,” said Inman.

Murphy chimed in her agreement.

“They helped us,” Murphy said. “They pushed us in practice and everyone on the team is important and has shined.”

Coach Zeller noted that the effort started with two girls that had not played much in past years, now in their final game as a Tiger.

“We had two seniors, Nikki (Hathoot) and Tinaya (Murphy),” the coach said. “They were definitely the heart and soul, the leaders.”

Teige Zeller, who refers to her teammates as “my girls,” felt the will to succeed made it difficult to stop the Tigers.

“The first thing I think is that the team was hungry,” said Zeller. “They were hungry for a state championship. I know we had to believe.”

She continued by giving credit to her father.

“I honestly have all faith in my dad’s philosophy,” said Teige Zeller. “He is honestly the one who turned the team around. He grabbed a hold of that talent and took it to the higher level.”

Spent emotionally, coach Zeller summed everything up with a few words for his happy, but tired team.

“What a memory,” said Zeller, putting his arms around his daughter and “her girls.”


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