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It’s a safe bet that from now on, Ron Drake will be a little more measured when talking about his defense.
Drake, a veteran basketball coach in northern New Mexico, started bragging a little bit about his team’s defense recently. Just a few hours later, the Española Valley Sundevils had their worst defensive showing of the season at Shiprock.
“I was concerned,” said Drake, now in his second season as the head coach of the Sundevils. “You never have an off-night on defense.”
But Drake’s concerns were quieted at least for Saturday night as Española Valley smothered the Los Alamos Hilltoppers in a big District 2AAAA girls basketball game. Española Valley forced 25 Los Alamos turnovers with fast and physical full-court pressure to win 55-46 at Griffith Gymnasium.
The two teams met Saturday in a game to decide early control of the District 2AAAA race. Los Alamos has dominated the district for three straight years, but now it is looking up at Española Valley in the standings, although there’s still a long way to go before anything’s decided.
Los Alamos only led for two brief moments in the game, both of those coming in the first quarter. It made a run late in the third quarter just as Española Valley was threatening to run away with the contest, but Española Valley regained full control early in the fourth quarter to pick up the big road win.
Few Hilltopper possessions went by Saturday without the Sundevils deflecting a pass or knocking away a dribble.
“They’re really quick,” Hilltopper point guard Jenny Tumas said of the Sundevils. “We have good ball-handlers, but they’re quick. It was really hard (Saturday).”
Complicating Los Alamos’ night was the fact that starting point guard Tyree Richins is sidelined with illness. Richins missed Wednesday night’s game against Bernalillo.
Her illness comes right on the heels of sister Bryanna Richins’ illness.
Bryanna Richins, meanwhile, got her first start in three weeks Saturday and was one of Los Alamos’ bright spots offensively. She finished with 12 points, tying her for the team lead along with Taylor Ealey.
But Española Valley’s Nisa Duran turned in a monster night. Duran finished with 18 points and more importantly finished with five steals, many of those getting turned into points on the opposite end of the floor.
Duran, a lightning-quick guard with lighting-quick hands, created havoc for the Hilltoppers, both in the 2-1-2 full court pressure defense and in the half court.
She and teammate Megan Martinez, the 2007-09 District Player of the Year, paced all scorers Saturday.
Tumas said afterward that she thought the team was prepared for what Española Valley was going to throw at it going in.
“We were threading the ball well for awhile there,” she said. “We’ve been working on it in practice a lot. We just got tired and they adjusted to what we were doing.”
The Hilltoppers trailed 22-17 at the half — they were able to hold the Sundevils to just seven points in the second quarter — then came out for the third and made adjustments to try to beat the Sundevil pressure down the floor.
Richins set up in the low post, getting behind Española Valley’s trap and got three quick buckets early in the second half, the third put Los Alamos within five points.
After an Española Valley time out, guard Sarah Worland forced a turnover of her own and took the ball the length of the court for a layup to cut the Sundevil advantage to just three.
The Hilltoppers would get no closer, however.
Little went right for Los Alamos’ offense Saturday, as it shot just 16 of 41 from the field (39 percent) and even struggled from the foul line, connecting on just 12 of 22 attempts.
Largely due to turnover creation, the Sundevils got off a healthy 56 shot attempts, but made just 20 (35.7 percent).
While Drake knows the 2AAAA season isn’t even halfway over yet, he said Saturday’s win on the road is a big feather in his team’s cap.
“It’s real big,” he said. “Anytime you can beat the district champs, it’s big. I’m very happy for them.”
Just two years ago, the Sundevils went without a single win. With Drake at the helm, they finished second in the 2AAAA tournament and are in first place 3-0 (13-6 overall).
Los Alamos (11-10 overall, 2-1 in 2AAAA) was hoping for a better showing after throttling the Bernalillo Spartans 70-21 Wednesday night.
The Hilltoppers will be on the road Tuesday to face the only team in the district it hasn’t seen, the Capital Jaguars. The Jaguars (3-14) have won two straight, over Bernalillo and Taos, since losing its district opener to the Sundevils.