ALBUQUERQUE — The third time was the charm.
The Cleveland High School boys basketball team, which had suffered championship-game losses in The Pit in 2015 and 2018, finally captured the blue trophy the evening of May 8 in The Pit, 55-49, over No. 3 Las Cruces.
Bulldawgs coach William Benjamin lamented his team’s turnovers (8) in the first half, which led to 18 first-half points for the Storm (14-1).
Cleveland had but five turnovers in the first two periods, and the Bulldawgs (14-1) managed only 2 points off them.
It was a seesaw battle, the kind you like to see waged in The Pit, where the Bulldawgs won the 2020 title, beating Capital — which ousted the Storm in the semifinals — for their second title under Benjamin.
The Storm had lost a pair of four-point finals, 60-56 to Hobbs under original head coach Brian Smith in 2015, and 53-49 to Atrisco Heritage three years later, with Sean Jimenez at the helm. Cleveland knocked AHA from contention with a 58-54 home victory in this year’s semis; AHA won state crowns in 2018 and ’19.
The Storm used an 8-0 run to close the first period and took a 12-10 lead. Each team had a 6-0 run in the second stanza, with the Storm grabbing the lead at intermission, 31-25, in part due to an 8-0 run down the stretch, with six of those points coming from senior Nate Hasberry.
Both teams loved pounding the ball inside, and when you have 6-11 Isaiah Carr of the Bulldawgs, who had 13 points and 7 rebounds by halftime, who wouldn’t?
But Cleveland had, albeit shorter, forces in the paint: Hasberry, fellow senior Tre Watson and junior Antonio Avila, who combined for 27 points and 8 rebounds by intermission.
The Bulldawgs whittled the deficit to three, 41-38, after limiting the Storm to 10 points in the third period, 6 from Watson and 2 each from Hasberry and senior guard Evan Gonzales.
Las Cruces owned a 38-35 lead until the Storm scored the last six points of the period over the final two minutes.
Watson, headed to Fresno State to play football in the fall, and possibly basketball in the winter, came alive in the fourth quarter.
He was fouled during an off-balance layup and converted the “and one” for a 44-38 CHS lead.
After Bulldawg Carr missed a pair of free throws, Watson snagged the rebound, but the Bulldawgs scored next on a tip-in by Carr.
Jimenez called a timeout with 4:26 to play; the Storm came out with a long pass, followed by a dish to Watson along the south baseline.
He slipped and fell, landing hard, and Jimenez hurried to his side.
Watson was helped up, Storm fans at the south end holding their breath, and went to the bench.
“That was gonna be a dunk,” Jimenez said. “I saw his feet go out from under him; he slipped and rolled his ankle. Next-level players will get back in, and tough kids get back in — and that’s what he is.”
Enter Cole Savage. The 6-4 junior grabbed a rebound at the north end, then missed a 3-pointer at the other end. A few seconds later, he had the ball again at the southwest corner of The Pit and drilled a 3, putting the Storm ahead, 47-40.
No way was that a surprise, Jimenez said later.
“We do a shooting drill every day and he’s always top-two — he’s one of our top shooters on the team,” he said. “Carr got 10 feet off of him — no hesitation.”
Jimenez then called another timeout, sending Watson back into the game — and back to work. He made a pair of free throws with 2:10 left in regulation to make it 49-42.
In the game’s final minute, the Bulldawgs resorted to fouling, hoping to see some Storm misses at the line and get the ball back.
It didn’t work: Gonzales converted his one-and-one opportunity with 31.9 seconds left for 51-46.
David Cruz’s 3-pointer — his only points in the game after starting — made it 51-49.
Playing keep-away, Gonzales was fouled again, and once again converted his one-and-one with 13.6 ticks to go for 53-49.
“Deuce” Benjamin, who led all scorers with 21 points, missed a 3, which would have cut the Storm’s lead to 53-52, and Watson wrestled two Bulldawgs for the rebound.
Fouled in the process, with 05.1 showing on the clock, he sank both free throws and, with the Storm students chanting, “Just like football” (a 56-7 Storm win over the Bulldawgs across the street five weeks earlier), it was over.
It was 7:52 p.m. and the celebration was underway.
“Hats off to Cleveland; Sean did a tremendous job,” LCHS coach Benjamin said.
“You win some and you lose some,” is how Carr, a junior, summed it up for the Bulldawgs.
“Defense” made the difference, Jimenez said, echoing what Smith once preached in his D2O (defense to offense) philosophy.
“Our motto this year has been ‘Guard to Win,’ and when it came down to it, these guys played it like crazy.”
He said when his team began trapping and limiting Carr when it came to rebounding, Jimenez said, “He cannot get rebounds; box him out. Five of us have to rebound, and I think we did that in the third quarter.”
Although outscored 12-10 in that eight-minute stretch, the Storm had eight rebounds while Carr had just two.
Hasberry and Watson finished their prep careers with 17 points apiece, with Watson grabbing 7 rebounds. Also scoring in the game for the Storm were Avila with 8; Gonzales, with 6; Savage had 3; Jeff Davison and Trey Ortega added 2 apiece. (Watson, Davison and Ortega also had key roles in the Storm’s football rout of the Bulldawgs, as well as the Storm’s run to the 2019 state championship.)
Carr had a double-double for the Bulldawgs, 17 points and 14 rebounds; he also blocked 8 shots.
“It’s a blessing and I’m glad these guys did it,” Jimenez said in the postgame media conference.
“These seniors are untouchable, man, and I’m talking about as people: You’re talking about a 4.0 (Hasberry), close to a 4.0 (Watson). ‘Yes, sir. No, sir.’ They do what you ask, and they deserve the success they’re going to get. I told these two, ‘This is just the start of it.’
“(Hasberry’s) gonna be a next-level player, (Watson’s) gonna go be a Bulldog. Who knows what the future holds for these two guys, but it’s bright.”
Ortega, Davison and Lucas Lovato — who was on the floor for 12:54 but did not score — are the Storm’s other seniors.
Storm warnings: William “Deuce” Benjamin was named the 2020-21 MaxPreps New Mexico High School Basketball Player of the Year. The 6-1 junior guard averaged 27.1 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game while shooting 50 percent from the field and 87 percent from the free throw line.
… District 1-5A again rules Class 5A basketball: Natalia Chavez’s buzzer-beating shot from midcourt — featured on ESPN’s “Sports Center” — gave Volcano Vista a thrilling 52-49 overtime victory over Hobbs in the girls’ championship game, played before the boys’ title tilt. 1-5A also ruled in 2016, when the Volcano Vista girls and Rio Rancho boys won championships. In another connection to Cleveland, VVHS freshman Taejhuan Hill is the sister of former Storm standouts, her sister Jade and twin brothers Marquis and Marquise.
… With regard to information circulating about the shot clock in high school basketball, the National Federation of State High School Associations has not approved the shot clock for high school basketball. The process for approval of all high school basketball rules changes for the 2021-22 season, which involves the NFHS Basketball Rules Committee, the NFHS Rules Review Committee and the NFHS board of directors, is still in progress. A release of all high school basketball rules changes by the NFHS is anticipated by the end of this week.
… The NMAA, through a partnership with the New Mexico Gas Company, used the innovative ShotTracker for the basketball championships. ShotTracker is a sensor-based system that delivers statistics and analytics to teams and fans instantly. “We are excited to have ShotTracker as an added element to the finals for the (championships),” said NMAA Executive Director Sally Marquez.