William Kie
Colton Lowley (32) of Gallup High School drives the ball to the basket against Centennial High School at the New Mexico State Basketball Championships. Gallup fell to Centennial, 52-38.

Upsets, OTs and Big Wins: New Mexico State Basketball Championships Draw Thousands

Harlan McKosato

At the Pit, the University of New Mexico’s famed basketball arena, it was a wild and raucous weekend, as teams from across the state came to Albuquerque for the annual New Mexico State Basketball Championships. This year was the first year the state instituted a format featuring boys and girls teams; competing in six championship tournaments from classes 1A through 6A.

The 5A Gallup Bengals boys and girls, and the 4A Shiprock Chieftains girls team (all three teams from the Navajo reservation) made the trip to the Pit. The Gallup teams won both their semi-final games to make it to their respective championship game, but the Shiprock girls fell short in a thrilling semi-final overtime game. The 3A Laguna Acoma High (Pueblo) boy’s team also played in Albuquerque and made it to their championship game.

The Pit was rocking Thursday, Friday and Saturday. On Friday, the first game, a 4A Boys Semifinal game, began at 8 a.m. The games went all day, one after another. The final tipoff was the 5A girls championship game – Gallup vs Los Lunas at 7:30 p.m. Saturday was much the same with the opening whistle at 8 a.m. for the 1A boys finals and a game every two hours until the 6A boys championship at 8 p.m.

At least 10,000 crowded into the Pit to watch the semi-finals and finals. But the 5A boys finals at 2 p.m. Saturday between Gallup and Centennial High School drawing up to  drew 12,000. The Albuquerque Journal reported that the championship game “was delayed 15 minutes to accommodate a massive crowd of Gallup fans that was waiting to get into the Pit.”

The Gallup boys improved their winning streak to 29 games, and their overall record to 29-1. They beat Grants High 70-36 in the semi-finals last Thursday, after squeaking by Farmington 61-59 in the quarter-finals (round of 8) on Wednesday, trailing 44-20 midway through the third quarter. After the semifinals blowout, Grants Coach Joseph Sanchez said, “We ran into a buzz saw. I think we were a little overwhelmed.”

Gallup’s Sean Eskeets, the team’s leading scorer during the season, led a balanced Bengal attack against Grants with 14 points, followed by Colton Lowley with 12 and Richard Rangel with 11 points on 5-for-5 shooting from the floor. With the win over Grants, Gallup made a return to the state championship game for the second time in three years.

Gallup, who won the 5A District 1 Championship this year and came into the state tournament seeded second, met the No. 1 Centennial High Hawks in the finals on Saturday afternoon inside the Pit. They lost 52-38, ending their hopes for the first boys state championship. The run-and-press Bengals were held to just 17 points in the first half. They closed the gap to 35-30 at the end of the third period, but Centennial put the game away with their free throw shooting in the final minutes. Lowley lead the Bengals with 16 field goals.

In the 5A girls bracket, No. 1 seeded Gallup dominated No. 4 Espanola Valley in the semi-finals, 78-52. Kaitlyn Quigley had 18 points, 9 assists and 8 rebounds to lead the Bengals. “I was feeling it,” she told ICTMN.

Espanola led after the first quarter 16-13. But Gallup outscored their opponent 51-17 in the second and third quarters, blowing Espanola off the court and taking a 64-33 lead into the final quarter. Rachelle Blackgoat chipped in 13 points for the Bengals and Ni’ashia McIntosh added 10. Gallup shot 50 percent from the floor, hitting 30 of 60 field goal attempts, including six 3-pointers.

On Friday night, in the 5A girls finals, the Pit was again packed with approximately 10,000 fans. At halftime, the Bengals led 41-34. The two teams were tied 49-49 heading into the fourth quarter. But No. 2 Los Lunas pulled out a 68-63 victory. Los Lunas was ahead 59-57 late in the fourth quarter before pulling away at the end of the game.

Bengals post player Ni’ashia McIntosh had a team high 23 points and pulled down 14 rebounds. Cheyenne Livingston was the only other Gallup player in double figures with 12 points. Gallup finished the season with a record of 26-3.

The Shiprock Lady Chieftains (No. 3 seed) lost the 4A girls semifinals game to No. 2 Hope Christian 48-40 in overtime. Shiprock was outscored 9-1 in overtime, and missed all seven of their field goal attempts in overtime.

Shiprock hit only 2-34 of their 3-point shots in the quarterfinals and semifinals. Shontal Grey led the Lady Chieftains with 15 points. They led 29-25 heading into the fourth quarter, before being outscored 14-10, and sending the game into overtime. Shiprock hit on only 13-of-54 field goal attempts (less than 25 percent) for the game. They finished the season with a record of 26-5.

In the 3A boys semi-finals, the No. 3 Laguna Acoma Hawks defeated No. 2 Clayton 83-72 at the Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho, N.M. Two seniors, Ryan Arkie with 24 points, and Jalen Smith with 21, led the Hawks in their upset of Clayton. Laguna Acoma helped their cause by shooting 23-29 from the free throw line.

The Hawks were tied 38-38 at halftime. Laguna Acoma Coach Ryan Peil said, “We wanted to wear [Clayton] out because they didn’t sub much. That was the game plan.” Clayton led 50-45 in the third quarter before the Hawks dominated the rest of the game 44-22. It was Laguna Acoma’s 17th straight win.

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At the championship game Saturday morning in the Pit, Laguna Acoma (26-4) were only down by three points against Mesilla Valley, 31-28, at the half, but were outscored 32-21 in the second half and the final score was 63-49, Mesilla.

Mesilla switched from a full-court press to a half-court press after intermission, which changed the pace of the game to their advantage.

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