Demons edge past No. 2 Rio Rancho Cleveland
This was more than just was a win over a boys basketball team considered one of the best in the state for the Santa Fe High Demons.
Oh, this was more than that.
It was the kind of win that puts building programs on the map, that can truly change a culture.
When Demons senior guard Antonio Lovato awkwardly grabbed Aamer Muhammad’s 3-point miss and the buzzer sounded to secure a 63-62 win over Rio Rancho Cleveland for Santa Fe High in Toby Roybal Memorial Gymnasium on Thursday night, the narrative shifted. No longer are the Demons (12-2) upstarts trying to prove they belong, because they do after beating a team that came in ranked second in MaxPreps.com’s Freeman rankings that goes toward helping the New Mexico Activities Association’s selection and seeding process.
Not that Santa Fe High was a slouch — it was No. 4 coming into the game.
“This is new territory for us,” Demons head coach Zack Cole said. “I worry about, ‘Are our guys going to be ready?’ But we’ve been ready every game.”
That was clear from the moment Fedonta “J.B.” White knocked down a 3-pointer in the opening 14 seconds of the game, and still present when Lovato knocked down two pressure-packed free throws with 20.9 seconds left on the clock that gave Santa Fe High a 63-62 lead. It answered Cleveland’s 14-3 run that erased a 58-49 deficit in the final 2 minutes.
The Demons showed Cole they were more than ready for this moment with the flick of a pair of 3s in the final moments from Derek Solano and White. Solano’s three came with 2:27 left and Santa Fe High nursing a 53-49 lead. He took the left-handed pass from sophomore guard Cruz Martinez and drained the open look. It was just the fourth attempt from the perimeter in the second half, but the first make since Christian Kavanaugh knocked down his 3 at the 5:56 mark of the third quarter.
For a team that has relied on the 3-pointer this season, it was another sign of maturity that Santa Fe High eschewed the shot for so long to try and get a better look.
“It’s really being unselfish,” White said. “We move the ball a lot and everybody gets open and everybody can score on this team. We can run and get down the floor. Once we swing it, anybody can score.”
Lovato definitely showed he could score, as he hit just one 3 but was aggressive to the basket and scooped and scored in the lane for 17 points. His scoop layup with 3:44 in the third gave the Demons their biggest lead at 41-27. When the Storm (10-1) roared back and cut the lead to 43-37 on Nathan Hasberry’s three-point play with 1:09 left in the quarter, Lovato calmly got to the lane and hit a floater in the paint 14 seconds later to up the lead to eight.
Solano showed how deep Santa Fe High’s reservoir of shooters is when he hit three 3s and finished with 11 points.
“That’s what makes our team so dangerous — you never know which night is going to be hot for which player,” Solano said. “[Thursday] was just my night and they kept feeding me the ball.”
The only time that the Demons looked shaky came in the final moments, when the Storm finally played with a sense of urgency that was seemed so lacking for much of the game. Santa Fe High guards found themselves trapped in corners both in the backcourt and in the halfcourt that led to a pair of steals. When Martinez’s pass to Lovato was stolen by Jalen Munn, he intentionally fouled the Storm wing by pulling on his jersey on the breakaway that allowed Cleveland to score four points in a 17-second span and cut the lead to 58-56.
That’s when White hit the other big 3, hitting it with a defender in his face in the right corner for a 61-56 lead.
“In those moments, we kinda tell our guys to be patient,” Cole said. “But Derek Solano had super confidence, and J.B. … Gosh dang, he was super confident, as well. When we say when you shoot the ball with confidence, you’re probably going to make it.”
Not even a six-point spurt of a 3, a steal and a three-point play by Muhammad in a five-second span sapped that confidence. Lovato simply took the ball from the top of the key, drove to the basket and picked up a foul on Munn.
The ensuing free throws and stout defense as Cleveland missed two 3s by Muhammad helped the Demons to a new day.
They’re contenders, and they don’t appear to be ready to let their new status slip away.