ESPAÑOLA — While their home address is technically Edward Medina Gymnasium, the Española Valley girls basketball team basically lives in the corners.
Tucked in that small space between the baseline and the curving arc of the 3-point line is where the Sundevils (11-1) have made their living this season. On Tuesday night in the opening round of the Class 4A girls tournament, visiting St. Pius X never got the memo.
Time and again the Sundevils did heavy damage with the 3-ball from the corner en route to a 62-36 win, punching their ticket to Thursday’s semifinal against perennial powerhouse Kirtland Central. The tournament’s sixth seed, Kirtland Central, beat Bernalillo, 48-45, and will travel to Medina Gym for the right to appear in Saturday’s championship game in The Pit.
“If you’re going to win this thing, you might as well go through the team that’s done it 19 times,” said Española coach Joe Estrada. “You don’t want anyone saying you didn’t beat the best teams to finish first.”
The Sundevils (12-1) are seeking the first state title in school history. The other three teams in the semifinals — Kirtland Central, Portales and Gallup — have combined to win 32 of them.
If Española shoots the 3 like it did Tuesday night, that might not be a problem. The Sundevils scored 11 straight points in the first quarter to take control early. Anita DeAguero started it by draining a 3-pointer in the left corner to snap a 2-2 tie. Barely 30 seconds later, Jordan Torres hit the first of her two straight 3s, one on each side of the baseline.
DeAguero ended the quarter with a 35-foot bomb before she and Torres went back to the corners for two more 3-pointers. Of the Sundevils’ first 20 points, 18 came on shots outside the arc. Of those, 15 were from shots in the corner.
Told that his players make those shots look easy, Estrada said that’s exactly the point.
“We practice moving different players into those spots all the time,” he said. “There are so many girls on this team that can shoot it from there.”
Of course, it’s not all about the offense. The Sundevils forced 24 turnovers, making a mess of the St. Pius offense. The Sartans (7-3) shot just 33 percent from the field. Estrada credits the work his team did in the weeks and months leading into the season, to all the times he and his players spent in those 4-to-1 pods where practice and scrimmages were not an option.
“You learn to get creative in times like that, and by creative I mean you get to teach a lot about defense,” he said. “You can’t really run an offense in small groups, but you can teach them to play the kind of defense you want.”
The Sundevils led 27-15 at halftime and steadily pulled away in the second half thanks to the low-post play of Kianna Duran and Cameron Connors. Duran had six points in the third quarter and Connors had half a dozen in the fourth.
Three Española players finished in double figures, led by DeAguero’s 16. Connors had 14 while Torres finished with 11.
Thursday’s other semifinal will have No. 1 Portales facing No. 4 Gallup at a game in Santa Rosa. Portales beat Silver in Tuesday’s quarterfinals, winning 63-41 in a game at Ruidoso. Gallup stayed at home and edged No. 4 Highland, 53-51.
There was a point in the second half of Tuesday’s Class 4A quarterfinal game against visiting Kirtland Central where Española Valley boys coach Gabriel Martinez was in need of a spark.
As if just realizing that he had one at his disposal, he took a few steps toward the scorer’s table when his team was back on defense, looked up into the Median Gym stands and started raising his arms asking for help.
“I looked around and thought, ‘Hey, we’ve got fans here,’ ” he said. “We needed them, and they did what they always do and gave us energy.”
With 1,300 fans filling the double-decker bleachers on either side of the court, the crowd noise so many visiting teams hear about did have an impact. It helped the Sundevils fight off the Broncos and pull away for a 62-40 win that sends them into Thursday’s 4A semifinals in Albuquerque against top-seeded Del Norte.
Del Norte advanced with a 43-30 win at home over Highland, while the other semifinal has No. 3 Gallup facing No. 2 Artesia. Gallup edged Bernalillo 70-67 on Tuesday while Artesia beat Silver, 76-58.
Española (10-3) never trailed in Tuesday’s game, thanks to a dominating night on the glass, outrebounding the Broncos 44-27 while forcing 20 turnovers and holding foul-plagued Kirtland to 29 percent shooting.
While the Broncos were able shake off a disastrous start in which they spotted Española Valley a 10-0 lead after four minutes, they never did get back to even footing despite making it a one-possession game three separate times in the second quarter.
The beginning of the end came in the waning moments of the third quarter when Sundevils guard Garrett May drained a pair of 3-pointers, the second of which was a 30-foot buzzer-beater to open a 44-34 lead.
Española’s defense took it from there. An 11-0 run early in the fourth quarter ended the suspense as the Broncos went the final 6-plus minutes without a field goal.
The bottom line, said Martinez, is that there’s something to be said about playing at home this late in the season.
“With all the stuff that’s gone on, just to play in our own gym in front of the fans that live for this sort of thing is what it’s all about,” he said. “It’s not easy for teams to come in here. I mean, I know we don’t have a full sellout or anything, but it’s still our fans and they know when to make noise.”