When a team is an underdog on the road in the state tournament, one of the best things that can happen for them is to shoot lights out.
Albuquerque’s Del Norte High School — seeded 12th in the Class 4A state tournament — shot 71 percent from the field in the first and third quarters and 59 percent for the entirety of the game en route to upset No. 5 Española Valley High School 81-74 in the first round on March 9 at Edward Medina Gymnasium.
The sharpshooting Knights (15-13) received a three-headed scoring bulk and were led by 20 points from senior Jordan Neilsen and 17 apiece from Matt Antonio and Malik Barton.
Considered an underdog strictly by seeding and record, Del Norte did play in 4A’s toughest district in 6-4A, which qualified five teams for the state tournament out of the 16-seed bracket — having the Knights more than well-prepared for their road test at one of the state’s toughest and wildest environments in Española.
“We came into this year knowing everybody was going to doubt us,” Neilsen said. “We just knew we were going to get this upset because no one owes us anything. We came in here and we dominated, and that was the game plan, to come out here and dominate.”
The Knights certainly dominated statistically from the field for two of the four quarters with those 71 percent efforts. They grabbed an 18-15 lead after the first, then survived a second-quarter onslaught by Española’s Ryan Trujillo, who scored 17 of the Sundevils’ 18 points in the quarter to tie the game 32 apiece at halftime.
Then, Del Norte came steaming out of the locker room in the third quarter to knock down nine of their first 10 shots and Antonio started things off with a personal 7-0 run before the Knights scored the first nine points.
The Sundevils tried to keep pace after falling behind as many as 17 points at 60-43 in the third, as Trujillo scored nine of the team’s 20 points in the quarter to leave them trailing only 62-52 entering the final eight minutes.
Española got within 62-54 after scoring the first two points in the fourth quarter, but Neilsen answered for the Knights and coolly knocked down back-to-back 3’s from the left and right corners to extend the lead to 13 points. It would turn out to be Del Norte’s largest advantage of the quarter and Española would only be able to climb back to within seven points before the final horn.
“It was a big emphasis this week and if you’re going to beat these guys, you gotta make shots,” Del Norte head coach Jeron McIntosh said. “Those guys (Antonio and Neilsen) are seniors and they just felt the urgency tonight. They put the extra work in and that was the biggest difference in them making shots tonight and us winning.”
Although he made some of the biggest shots of the game, Neilsen credited the preparation and confidence McIntosh instills to the team come practice time.
“That’s just confidence and coach preaches confidence,” Neilsen said. “We go out every day in practice confident and I even airballed a shot tonight and my teammates got mad, but I told them, ‘Don’t worry about me, I’ll make my next shots,’ and I made them.”
Trujillo virtually carried the Sundevils on his own with his game-high 42 points and 10-of-10 performance from the free throw line. Española head coach James Branch said his team was “a bit offensively-challenged,” at times, otherwise, after looking at the scorebook to see Brian Martinez’s 11 points and Christian Aizpuro’s nine being the next-closest. Branch also knew Del Norte was battle-tested and said it made the difference in the game.
“I was weary of them playing in the toughest district,” he said. “Our district is not that strong top-to-bottom. They’re more battle-tested than we are come district play, I’ll tell you that right now. That concerned me looking at some of the wins they had, because some of them were no slouch.”
Del Norte defeated 5A’s Manzano and La Cueva High School in the regular season and also lost one of their two games to district opponent and defending state champion Hope Christian — the No. 2 seed in this year’s state tournament — by a single point.
“I’m disappointed that our guys don’t get to go to the The Pit because I think they deserve it,” Branch said. “But hey, that’s why you play the games and everyone in the state tournament is capable of winning.”
Branch will lose four seniors who started the game from this year’s team in Trujillo, Martinez, Justino Rascon and Gabe Serrano, and six overall. When asked by another reporter what Trujillo meant to the program now that he will be moving on, Branch said it was far more than his basketball talents that made him a great player to coach.
“Not only is he a great basketball player, he’s an even better person,” Branch said. “He’s a very high-character kid with integrity and that bodes well for him and he’ll be successful moving on, as will we be.”
Española ended the season 17-10 overall and lost their final two games of the season — both at home — prior to an eight-game win streak to finish undefeated in regular season district play.
Del Norte will next battle No. 4 Gallup High School in the quarterfinals at 6:30 p.m., Wednesday at Dreamstyle Arena-The Pit.