SANTA FE — The No. 1 team in New Mexico? Not on this night.
The best boys basketball team on the floor at Toby Roybal Memorial Gymnasium was fifth-ranked Santa Fe High School, which despite being in control almost the entire way still needed two free throws from senior guard Antonio Lovato with 20.9 seconds remaining to upset previously undefeated and top-ranked Cleveland 63-62 on Thursday night.
“This was a very big win for our program,” third-year Demons coach Zack Cole said. “Probably the biggest one since I’ve been here.”
Santa Fe (12-2) already had some impressive victories this season, but none to match this one.
The Demons only trailed for 11 seconds — albeit 11 seconds in the final minute of the game — but they outplayed Cleveland.
“To be honest,” Cleveland coach Sean Jimenez said, “it shouldn’t have been that close. They probably should have won by more.”
Santa Fe started the game on a 15-2 run, with its marvelous stable of guards turning Cleveland over time and again as the Demons switched press defenses from a 2-2-1 to a 1-2-2 and kept the Storm from finding a flow. Offensively, the Demons also had terrific looks from the arc, with J.B. White knocking down one and Christian Kavanaugh two others.
Those Santa Fe guards befuddled the Storm, either from the perimeter or on drives to the basket.
“We feel like we have the best guards in the state,” Cole said. “And we feel like we have the best depth (at that position) in the state.”
Cleveland chipped away here and there, occasionally inching into Santa Fe’s shadow. The lead had shrunk to four, 23-19, late in the first half, but a 3 from Lovato and a bucket by Cruz Martinez allowed the Demons to take a 28-21 advantage to the half.
The second half began with more long-range excellence, from Lovato and Kavanaugh, and a 36-23 lead.
It was very nearly a perfect storm, as it were, for Cleveland (10-1). The Storm was perhaps a bit road weary, having traveled nearly 1,200 miles in the last couple of weeks, not to mention having to face this excellent team minus a crucial starter, the sick Joshua Tarry. And Cleveland, because of the weather, had not practiced all week, Jimenez said.
Having said that, Santa Fe displayed more energy and urgency — save for the last two minutes, when Cleveland not only erased a 58-49 deficit, but seized its first lead of the night, 62-61, on Aamer Muhammad’s three-point play with 31.8 seconds showing.
But Lovato went into the lane on the next possession, drawing a foul from Cleveland’s Jalen Munn. He calmly buried his two free throws.
“We wanted to start the year off with a win,” said Lovato, who finished with a team-best 17 points. “They fought back, but we were strong enough to overrule them.”
The Storm had two 3-point attempts in the final 10 seconds. The first by Munn (who led Cleveland with 16 points) missed, and was rebounded by the Demons.
But Santa Fe turned it over on the ensuing inbounds play. Muhammad lined up a 3, but it fell off with 1 second remaining.
Second-ranked Las Cruces (12-0) is the last remaining unbeaten 5A team.