‘Rebuilding’ Pecos three-peats, breezes by Newcomb, 58-37

March 18, 2019

ALBUQUERQUE — A virus is spreading in the community of Pecos, and no one wants to stop it.

Pecos head boys basketball coach Ira Harge Jr. said earlier this year his players were “bitten by the bug” of winning state championship titles. So much so, they decided to bypass a rebuilding year and go right on winning.

Not even the loss in 2018 of seven graduating seniors who helped end a 51-year state title drought could stop the snowball that is rolling through Class 2A. The Newcomb Skyhawks were the latest — and, for this season, the last — team in 2A to learn that the Panthers are primed to continue their state championship run.

The combination of a stingy perimeter defense and the stellar play of junior post Xavier Padilla, who had 22 points, keyed a 58-37 win Saturday. The contest drew about 9,000 people for the 8 a.m. Class 2A boys basketball championship in The Pit. The win capped a third straight championship for the top-seeded Panthers.

Of the three titles, this one might be the most impressive because of the Panthers’ roster overhaul. Only three players returned this season with significant playing time: Padilla, junior guard Anthony Armijo and senior wing Omar Dominguez. That left mostly junior varsity players to fill significant roles.

“We started this [past] summer, and we weren’t quite sure how they were going to react and respond after losing those seven seniors from last year,” Pecos head coach Ira Harge said. “They really stepped up and they did a great job from the summer all the way through.”

Perhaps no one made more strides in his performance than junior forward Ismael Villegas. He was a “floater” last year who spent his time in both the junior varsity and varsity teams and he became an essential post presence on both sides of the floor this season.

On Friday against No. 4 Texico in a semifinal, Villegas scored 27 point and had 12 rebounds. The Panthers held on to win 73-67 in overtime.

On Saturday in the final, Villegas scored 12 points and had 11 rebounds. He scored six of those points and grabbed four of those rebounds in the final quarter as the Panthers grew the lead to 54-29 with 3:07 left.

Villegas wasn’t even aware of his accomplishment — when a reporter told him he got a double-double, he responded with ‘Oh, really?’ — but he was fully aware of what motivated him from the offseason onward.

“Like coach Harge says, ‘We got that bug,’ ” Villegas said.

It caused the Panthers to step up their defense and force 22 consecutive missed 3s by the Skyhawks. Jared John hit Newcomb’s first one with 30 seconds left in the game to cut the deficit to 57-34.

The Skyhawks struggled to get good looks, in part because they played at the uptempo pace the Panthers prefer. Pecos held Newcomb to 29 percent shooting (14-for-57) to go with 8 percent shooting (2-for-24) from beyond the arc.

“It was nice,” Dominguez said. “We had a tougher time in the first round [the quarterfinals against No. 8 Magdalena] because they kinda slowed the pace down a little bit so we couldn’t get out and run. When another team wants to run with us, it’s on. We’re ready.”

The Skyhawks had only two sequences in which it hit consecutive shots. One started the game and tied the score at 4-all. The other came late in the first half when Chad Begay and Deion Johnhat hit a pair of jumpers to bring the Skyhawks within 22-16. Padilla, who returned to the floor in the final 2 minutes despite two fouls, followed with a back-breaking 3 and a transition layup in the final minute to make it 27-16 at the half.

It was the start of a 10-0 spurt that extended into the third quarter to give the Panthers a 32-17 lead after Villegas’ putback with 6:47 left in the third.

With that, Pecos bridged the gap from rebuilding to contender in the span of 10 months. The Panthers only lose Dominguez and Isaac Gonzales to graduation, and next year’s team is expected to have eight seniors to lead the pursuit of a four-peat.

The Panthers also have eighth-grader Jodaiah Padilla. He hit a free throw to end Pecos’ scoring, much to the delight of his teammates.

“We go into every summer and we just push each other,” Padilla said. “We just love to play the game of basketball, and we want more.”

“The bug” is spreading, and the town of Pecos is happy to have it.