Missed free throws sink Indian School; Hot Springs wins state title, 56-54
ALBUQUERQUE — The team that defied the odds all season finally encountered an obstacle it couldn’t overcome during Saturday afternoon’s boys Class 3A State basketball championship game in the Pit.
The long road into the offseason got just a little bit longer considering the struggles Santa Fe Indian School had at the line in the fourth quarter and overtime. The Braves converted just 6 of 15 tries in a painful 56-54 loss to Hot Springs.
“Our nemesis showed its neck tonight, I guess,” SFIS head coach Jason Abeyta said. “Man, we just didn’t knock down free throws. Like I talked to the boys in the locker room right now, I know it’s hard on them. It just came down to us missing free throws, man. That’s what it was.”
The loss ends what had been a storybook run for the Braves (20-12), a team picked to finish fourth in its district, a team that some felt was underappreciated in the polls and by the 3A tournament selection committee, a team that had so many struggles getting kids to leave their summer homes in various pueblos to attend offseason workouts.
Three wins into the tournament, they came within a matter of seconds (and a made free throw or two) of winning the program’s first title in 30 years.
The troubles began, in earnest, long before the 4:59 mark of the fourth quarter when Anders Pecos hit the first of his two free throw attempts to tie the game at 42. He missed the second, kickstarting the rough end for the team.
SFIS led by 10 at halftime and as many as 14 in the first half, but a tweak to the Hot Springs defense cut off the Braves’ feeding frenzy on drives to the basket and changed the pace of the game in the third quarter. The Tigers’ zone sparked a 9-2 run to open the second half and slowed down the SFIS offense that was led by the double-figure scoring of James Bridges, Jaden Aguino and Ethan Roanhorse.
The trio combined for 37 points with Bridges grabbing seven rebounds.
Hot Springs got 17 from Verrels Lukman.
The Tigers grabbed their first lead with 1:20 left in the third quarter when Coltin Whitehead converted a free throw after he was fouled on a shot for a three-point play to make it 35-34. From that point, it was a sprint to the finish as neither team led by more than three points in the final 11 minutes of regulation and four minutes of overtime.
“We wanted to get to the basket a little more. We did want to get to the free throw line, but we just didn’t execute on the free throw line,” Abeyta said.
SFIS certainly had its chances. With made shots coming harder and harder — the Braves had just three field goals in the final 10-plus minutes of the game — it put the outcome in the hands of the free throw shooters.
The team’s best player, Bridges, missed a pair with his team leading 46-45 with 1:18 to play, then senior point guard Jason Abeyta Jr. was fouled with 32 seconds left after making a steal and driving hard to the basket. In falling to the floor, he aggravated the same left ankle he’d injured earlier in the season, forcing Abeyta Sr. to call Virgil Valencia off the bench for the unenviable task of shooting the free throws.
“Basically it’s just looking in their eyes to see who’s ready and who’s not,” Abeyta Sr. said. “Some kids are ready for the moment and some, you can tell they shy away from it, so that’s why we did go with Virgil, you know what I mean?”
Abeyta Jr. said he wanted to take the shots, but simply couldn’t put weight on his lower leg for a minute or two after the play.
“I thought about it but I thought my team had it,” he said.
Valencia tied the game at 47 by making the first shot but his second attempt was off the mark. Hot Springs held for the last shot but came up empty, forcing overtime.
The Braves led just once in the extra session and got their only basket on a highlight-reel drive and dish from Pecos to Roanhorse with 1:10 to play. Pecos had an opportunity to tie with 15 seconds left, but missed one of his two free throws to keep Hot Springs in front, 54-53.
The final sequence of overtime saw the Tigers in control after making what appeared to be the final stop with 0.4 seconds left, but the bench was called for a technical foul. Several players ran onto the floor to celebrate a foul that put Lukman at the line.
Up 56-53, Lukman missed both shots before Bridges hit one of two technical free throws to give the Braves the ball at midcourt with one final possession. The entry pass went awry, handing Hot Springs its first state title since 1993.
For SFIS, it did more than put the program back in the kind of spotlight it hasn’t enjoyed in a generation. The realigned 3A field has the Braves in a position where Abeyta Sr. feels they can compete at a high level every year.
“I just think that it’s a very good class, it’s equal,” he said. “Hot Springs, us. Who would have ever thought that, us in the finals. It’s exciting.”