WEB EXCLUSIVE: Tiger boys hoops move on to first-ever state title game

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ALBUQUERQUE – The talk around The Pit during this week’s Class 4A Boys Basketball Tournament about the second-seed Los Lunas has centered on the Tigers’ dynamic duo – seniors Jacob Holland and Chris Sanchez.

Kenn Rodriguez-News-Bulletin photo: LOS LUNAS' Jalen Chavez (10) and Sasha Gallegos (20) defend St, Pius Ray Reyes during the Tigers' 39-36 win in the 4A state semifinals Thursday.

But fans saw a complete team effort during the final sequence of the dramatic 39-36 semifinal win Thursday against defending state champions St. Pius X – the team that eliminated Los Lunas in the semifinals last season.

Los Lunas led 38-36 with 22 seconds left in the game when Holland, missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw opportunity. After a Sartans timeout, St. Pius ran a play. With seniors Sasha Gallegos and Randy Moore covering the Sartans duo of Emilio Arrellano and Ray Reyes, Sanchez contested a 3-pointer by Luke McConnell. When the shot fell short, all five Tigers collapsed to fight for the ball, which ended up in the hands of Holland, who was fouled and sank one free throw with one second left on the clock to secure the win and Los Lunas’ safe passage to Saturday’s state title game against top-seeded Roswell – the first championship game in boys basketball for the school.

“This group has done a great job of coming together as a team in this tournament,” Julian said. “You see them huddling up, supporting each other on the bench and you’ve got to have that this time of the year.”

Julian had high praise for Moore and Gallegos, who had a tooth knocked out during a scramble for the ball early in the game.

“Randy did a great job on Reyes and Sasha, he lost a tooth,” Julian said. “But that’s the kind of player he is. He just stuck it back in there and said ‘I’m ready to go, coach.’”

Kenn Rodriguez-News-Bulletin photo: LOS LUNAS BENCH players link arms in solidarity late in their state semifinal game against St. Pius Thursday at The Pit in Albuquerque.

Holland and Sanchez accounted for 35 of Los Lunas’ 39 points Thursday – Holland finishing with a game-high 22 points and Sanchez adding 13, being slowed a bit by a jammed finger injury he suffered in the first quarter.

Junior Wayne Byers and freshman Kayden Walker scored three points and a single point, respectively, to account for the rest of the Tigers points. But while Holland and Sanchez did their wonder twins act on the offensive end, Moore was the primary defender against St. Pius’ Reyes, helping limit the senior to 10 points on 2-of-6 shooting. Portillos scored just two points, going just 1-of-7 from the field.

The game was almost a clinic on defense from the outset, though the Sartans were aided by an uncharacteristically bad shooting start from Los Lunas. St. Pius led 5-0 early but the Tigers cut the lead to 9-8 by the end of the first quarter.

The second quarter was more of the same until the midway point when Byars got an 8-3 run going with a trey from the corner. Los Lunas looked to take the lead into halftime, but McConnell hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give St. Pius an 18-16 halftime lead.

Kenn Rodriguez-News-Bulletin photo: LOS LUNAS' Chris Sanchez has his injured right hand checked during the Tigers' state semifinal game against St. Pius Thursday. Sanchez jammed a finger early in the game but played throughout.

Los Lunas opened the second half on a 7-2 run to take a 25-21 lead. But the Sartans scored five straight points to take their final lead, 26-25 with 2:32 left in the third quarter.

Holland scored on the Tigers next possession and Walker followed that, hitting the front end of a two-shot foul and Los Lunas took a 28-26 lead into the fourth quarter.

The Tigers again pushed the lead out to five points at 32-27 midway through the quarter. But the Sartans worked their way back until the defending champs trailed just 38-36 after a pair of made free throws by McConnell with 25.8 seconds left in the game.

“This kind of game, it was a grind it out game where every possession counts,” Julian said. “We wanted to speed them… people say “Speed them up’ but that’s easier said than done.’ You have to be strategic about it.
“I thought the guys did a good job picking their time to speed them up,” he said. “They got stops when they had to and got buckets and got to the foul line in the second half.”

Roswell easily dispatched fourth-seeded Centennial of Las Cruces 63-47 Thursday night to punch their ticket to Saturday’s championship game, which is schedule to tip off at 2 p.m. Saturday in The Pit.

“It means a lot, to get a second chance (at a state title) because we lost last year,” said Holland. “This means a lot ot play for a state championship in your senior year.”

After the game, Sanchez said his finger injury would not be an issue for Saturday’s game.

“It’s hurting but it’ll be alright,” he said.