Long-time coach James Branch now fortunate to guide 5A top-seed Espanola Valley into tonight’s state basketball semifinals, while 3rd seeded Pecos is in the 3A semis against 2nd seeded Estancia Capital eliminated by Artesia in 5A, St. Michael’s bows out versus Bernalillo in 4A, Espanola routs St. Pius X
By Arnie Leshin
It has been awhile since James Branch celebrated a state basketball championship, in fact it goes all the way back to his Questa boys hoisting the blue trophy in 1994.
Through the years, he had hoped to do the same while coaching the Mora boys. That’s his alma mater, that’s where he was a record-breaking scorer, but he fell short of winning state.
Before he won with 2A Questa, Mora had won state three times, including the previous year when Mora won 2A. Then, after dethroning Mora, his alma mater won two more.
“Of course, I would have happy to win at Mora,” Branch said. “That was my hometown. I played there, I coached there, but that’s history.”
Now, 24 years since his title in 1994, he has a chance to lead top-seeded Espanola Valley (27-1) to the 5A title. But first he has to get past 5th seeded Artesia, which is 21-7 after turning back 3rd seeded Capital in the quarterfinals.
The semifinals game is scheduled for 6:30. The other semis has 4th seeded Belen (24-7) meeting up with district rival Los Lunas (24-5), the 2nd seed.
Both games will be played at the Dreamstyle Arena at UNM, with the championship there on Saturday at 2 p.m.
“No looking ahead,” he said, “we take it one game at a time and doing fine. This is a team with plenty of talent, a strong bench, size and balanced scoring, and I’m lucky to be able to coach a team like this.”
Once, only once, have the Sundevils lost, with that coming at the hands of 6A Rio Rancho, 86-71, after the Rams lost the previous meeting 73-47. They have also won handily over 5A semifinalist Belen, and in the quarterfinals, rolled over 7th seeded Albuquerque St. Pius X, 61-41.
But Arestia, best known for winning the record-most football state championships, is now becoming a problem on the basketball court, too. The Bulldogs have size with 6-foot-6 senior Joe Willingham and 6-3 senior Taylor Null, and three of their guards accounted for 42 points and 10 assists versus Capital in a 65-63 triumph.
Artesia (21-7) had lost three times in three state tournament games to the Jaguars, who received 30 points that included five 3s from senior guard Tyler Alarid, and finished up at 22-8.
Pecos (26-3) is the 3rd seed and the defending 3A state champion, but what lies ahead will be tough tasks for head coach Ira Harge, Jr.’s team. Tonight’s 8:15 clash with 2nd seeded Estancia (28-1), which defeated the Panthers during the regular season.
And if it can avenge that defeat, Pecos might have to meet up with top-seeded, undefeated Texico (28-0) in the Saturday finals. The Wolverines’ record speaks for itself, but the Panthers will have to dispose of Artesia first, while Texico goes against 9th seeded Santa Rosa, which lost to Pecos in last year’s final. In the quarters, the Panthers rolled over 6th seeded Cuba, 70-43.
Eliminated Wednesday was 8th seeded St. Michael’s (14-16) in 4A. It hung close to top-seeded Bernalillo (28-1) before the Spartans went on a 7-0 run in the fourth quarter to win going away, 56-39. Bernalillo had more size and its 6-7 Solomon Fragua blocked 11 shots, brought down nine rebounds, and tossed in a dozen points.
Taos, the 7th seeded and champion of 2-4A, had its 7-game win streak come to an end in the 49-42 loss to 4th seeded Moriarty (20-8) in the quarters and wound up at 18-11 after coming off a forfeited 1-26 campaign.
Now the Pintos line up against Bernalillo while defending champion, 3rd seed Albuquerque Hope Christian (21-8) goes against 2nd seeded Silver (24-4), which dominated 7th seeded Shiprock, 74-40.
In 6A, its top seed Albuquerque Eldorado (25-2) taking on 5th seeded Rio Rancho Cleveland (21-9). In other semis, 3rd seeded Albuquerque Atrisco Heritage (24-3) plays 2nd seeded Las Cruces (29-1). All four teams won handily in the quarterfinals.
The girls also play semifinal games today, with the championships set for Friday at the Dreamstyle Arena, Bernalillo High or Santa Ana Star Center.
Pojoaque Valley (23-5), the 7th seed coming off its first win in four starts against 2-4A winner and 2nd seed, Las Vegas Robertson, meets up with 3rd seeded Moriarty (26-4, and top-seeded Portales (26-2) goes against 4th seeded Shiprock (20-9).
In 6A, top-seeded Albuquerque Cibola (26-4) matches up with 5th seeded Las Cruces (26-4), and 6th seeded Rio Rancho (23-7) lines up against 2nd seeded Hobbs (28-2).
In 5A, its top seed Los Lunas (27-2) facing 5th seeded Kirtland Central (18-10), and 2nd seeded Bloomfield (25-5) gets 3rd seeded Gallup (17-10).
In 3A, top-seeded Texico (24-4) meets up with 5th seeded Clayton (19-9), while 2nd seeded, defending champion Tobachi (23-6) faces 6th seeded Tularosa (20-7)
In 2A, Logan (25-3) is the top seed and takes on 4th seeded Fort Sumner/House (23-5), and in the other semis its 3rd seeded Penasco (24-4) versus 7th seeded Lordsburg (20-7).