Nando Chavez knew what to expect Saturday night an hour before the Taos Tigers delivered it.
When the Taos head boys basketball coach walked into the locker room to prepare for the Tigers’ showdown with St. Michael’s in the finale of the Horsemen Shootout round-robin tournament, he saw a team that was ready and prepared for the moment. It was everything Taos wasn’t before playing Laguna Acoma on Friday.
“That was a different team preparing [Saturday] than the team we had [Friday],” Chavez said. “As a coach, you can chuckle and tell them, ‘See guys? This works!’ Take some time to get mentally prepared. It works.”
It sure did. Taos outmuscled, outhustled and outworked the host Horsemen. The Tigers didn’t even need a 3-pointer, as every shot came inside the arc and led to a methodical 64-47 win to go a perfect 3-0 in the tournament.
And who needs the trey when you have a slasher in Abdul Khweis, who scored 21 points and went 9-for-11 from the free-throw line. Then, there was 6-foot-6 post Noah Armijio, who planted himself into the low post and grew roots as he scored 19 points and grabbed 16 rebounds to overwhelm the Horsemen inside.
Taos also held a 32-23 rebounding edge on the Horsemen, but 20 of them came in the second half as a 16-4 scoring run to open the third quarter proved to be the difference.
Armijo was front and center for that action, as he had 12 rebounds in the second half. He was most effective on the defensive glass, as he went five straight possession with a board that kept the Horsemen to a one-and-out situation.
“Coach Nando has a saying that rebounding is a hustler type of trait,” Armijo said. “Every time I see a ball go up, even if it’s my last bit of energy, I know I have to go up because my team relies on me to get that board.”
Against the Horsemen, the Tigers also relied plenty on Armijo to set the tone in the low post in the opening half and start a conga line of Horsemen defenders to the bench with foul trouble.
By the time the first half was over, Horsemen starting bigs Lucas Coriz and Rico Gurule were on the bench in foul trouble and Armijo had 14 points that helped the Tigers to a 33-26 lead at the break.
While the collection of fouls were a problem to the St. Michael’s game plan, head coach David Rodriguez said the bigger problem was similar to Taos’ in Friday’s 61-49 win over Laguna Acoma — not everyone showed up ready to play.
“That was our problem against Roswell, Capital, Santa Fe,” Rodriguez said. “Against the tough teams, you gotta show up. It’s game time. It’s prime time. If you’re a stud, be a stud all the time.”
Khweis knows exactly what Rodriguez means. He started the game with eight points in the opening quarter, and had a pair of three-point plays — the old-school way of counting by three — to help the Tigers to a 14-5 lead late in the quarter.
In the second half, Khweis scored eight points to close out the 16-4 run in the third as he slashed to the basket for tough, contested shots, but made them.
“We know Abdul,” Rodriguez said. “He’s tough. He’s tough to guard. He’s going to make plays. He’s going to make things happen for other people.”
Despite all of that, St. Michael’s had a shot at making it a competitive battle.
A 9-3 spurt to open the second quarter got the Horsemen within 21-19 on Berkeley Reynolds’ 3 from the wing with 5:34 left in the half.
When Reynolds scored on a breakaway layup with 3:28 to go, Taos only led 25-23. However, Khweis and Armijo scored six of the Tigers’ last eight points and pushed the margin up to seven at the half.
And that raised Chavez’s confidence that good things were on the horizon for the second half. It might be the turning point to a season, too.