The moment was there, waiting for the plucky, underdog Santa Fe High Demons to steal it.
After seeing its season hang by a thread in the first half, Santa Fe High was down 34-33 late in the third quarter against the No. 1 seed in the quarterfinals of the Class 5A State Basketball Tournament — the Rio Rancho Cleveland Storm. All the eighth-seeded Demons needed was one of their top players to hit a big shot.
Senior guard Cruz Martinez tried, but his jumper in the lane hit the front rim.
Fellow senior guard Cody Garcia tried twice, but his drive from the left wing and the buzzer-beating leaner from 18 feet to end the third quarter hit the back of the rim.
Junior forward P.J. Lovato tried, but his underhanded scoop shot hit nothing but the side of the basket.
Reprieved, Cleveland (12-1) rode out its own storm to advance to the 5A semifinals Thursday with a 60-49 win over the eighth-seeded Demons (9-4) on Tuesday night.
Santa Fe High was left to wonder what could have happened if it got one of those aforementioned shots to fall.
“There’s nothing we could about that expect make our next ones go down,” Martinez said.
The Demons couldn’t have asked for better options in those situations. After all, Martinez, Garcia and Lovato were the team’s top three scorers. Combined, they scored 43 points against the Storm.
What more could Santa Fe High head coach Zack Cole want?
“You can do everything right and sometimes things just don’t go your way,” Cole said. “A shot won’t fall, or a free throw rattles in and out. But we had good looks at the right spots with the right guys. I felt like we could have ended that third quarter with the lead and not just being down one.”
Instead, the Storm dodged the bullet, and a team normally known for its scoring prowess turned the defensive screws to Santa Fe High. After hitting 14 of their first 31 shots, the Demons missed 17 of their last 23 shots as a combination of tired legs and Cleveland’s stingy defense took hold.
The Storm finally took control with a 7-0 spurt early in the fourth, with 6-foot-7 post Tre Watson finishing it off with a three-point play off a dish from teammate Nathan Hasberry for a 43-35 lead with 4:52 to go.
“For the past 12 months of this pandemic and for the last two months of the season, we focused on nothing but defense,” Storm coach Sean Jimenez said. “It’s paying off for us right now.”
That was never more true than in a game-defining 18-2 Cleveland run in the first half that turned an 11-7 Santa Fe High lead into a 25-13 Storm advantage with less than a minute left before the break. The Demons, who scored the first seven points of the game, missed nine of 10 shots and turned the ball over seven times during that stretch. Cole credited the Storm’s defense, but he added his team got sloppy as they grew more tired toward the end of the half.
“They turn turnovers into points in a hurry,” Cole said of the Storm. “We did a good job in the beginning, but when we got tired, that was when we got sloppy with the ball. We’d settled down and regain control of that, but we couldn’t hit our shots.”
When the Demons finally did, momentum swung back in their favor. Martinez hit a 3-pointer from the right wing that unsnapped the cold spell and Lovato hit a runner in the lane at the buzzer to cut the margin to 25-18. The run continued into the third as Lovato and Ortiz scored on layups to trim the margin to 25-22 just 55 seconds into the second half, and Santa Fe High doggedly clung to Cleveland’s heels.
“We played better than we did the last time [a 65-42 Storm win on April 3],” Martinez said. “We went at them. That 7-0 run to start the game and us constantly battling back, that’s something to be proud of.”
It showed the determined spirit the Demons displayed through some trying times over the past 14 months. It started with the coronavirus pandemic that took away a summer of growth, then continued with the departure of 6-foot-7 star forward Fedonta “JB” White as he opted to graduate a year early and play for the University of New Mexico in the fall.
That never happened, though, as White was fatally shot in August, but it also left his former teammates clinging to one another for support, Martinez and Cole said.
White was a constant presence for the Demons, as they left every huddle with the chant “JB” to remind them of who they were playing for this season.
“Nobody really gave up on the team,” Martinez said. “Everyone was in it for everyone. We all wanted to be there and we showed up every day to work. That says a lot about these guys.”
And even when things were at their bleakest against the Storm, the Demons didn’t blink. All they needed was a little bit of luck and a couple of buckets to fall.
The moment was there. Sometimes, it doesn’t go your way.