May 9—Years of frustrating close calls for the Cleveland Storm were, at long last, set aside.
Cleveland's boys basketball résumé since 2015 had almost no discernible flaws in a lengthy run of success. That included seven straight state semifinal appearances, a pair of championship games and, this year, a No. 1 seed for the postseason.
It lacked only one thing — the very thing the Storm accomplished on Saturday night, as Cleveland won the Class 5A title, 55-49 over No. 3 Las Cruces, the defending champion, at the Pit.
"This was great," senior forward Tre Watson said after a 17-point, seven-rebound performance. "The chance to be the first team to ever do it is something spectacular."
Cleveland (14-1) was a state finalist in 2015 under previous coach Brian Smith — the man, current coach Sean Jimenez said, responsible for building the program — and again in 2018 when the Storm was beaten by Atrisco Heritage.
But the Storm finished this basketball season the way its football team did a few weeks ago, with a defining victory over Las Cruces (14-1) and clear acceptance as New Mexico's best team.
"As soon as we got the OK that we were gonna have a season, that's when I knew," said Cleveland senior guard Nate Hasberry, who also contributed 17 points. "We had a great group, we had a special group this year. I knew if we just kept together as a team, just keep fighting, taking it step by step, practice by practice, game by game ... we knew we would make it to this point. It feels amazing to finally win a state championship."
Still, this much-anticipated matchup was still very much in doubt in the final minute.
Cleveland, leading 49-46, saw junior guard Deuce Benjamin steal the ball for Las Cruces and go the other way with 40 seconds to go. His pull-up 3-pointer was off, however, and that represented the Bulldawgs' last, best hope.
"I felt it was going in," Benjamin said. "We had a chance to win and that was it right there. It was a good miss."
The Storm later sealed it with four free throws; the first two, by Evan Gonzales, were the most important, as they put Cleveland in front 53-49 with 13.6 seconds left.
Earlier for Cleveland, there were two crucial baskets in the fourth quarter.
The first was from the 6-foot-5 Watson going straight at Las Cruces' 6-11 center, Isaiah Carr, who had been repelling Cleveland shot attempts all night. Watson went up, drew contact, scored, and finished with a three-point play. That capped a 9-0 run — coming moments after an 11-0 Las Cruces run — and the Storm led 44-38 a minute into the fourth quarter.
"He's a next-level player," Jimenez said of Watson, "and next-level players make plays like that for you in a high school setting."
The other critical basket came from junior guard Cole Savage , who hadn't spent much time on the floor until then.
Savage nailed a 3-pointer with 3:28 remaining for a 47-40 lead — this, after he had just missed on a 3 seconds earlier. An offensive rebound kept that trip alive.
"We do a shooting drill every day, and he's always top two," Jimenez said. "He's one of the top shooters on the team. I know he hadn't shot the whole game, but the guy is tough as nails."
Those were Savage's only three points of the night.
Las Cruces coach William Benjamin reflected on one statistic in particular: the eight turnovers his team committed in the first half that led to 14 Cleveland points. The Storm led 31-25 at halftime.
"First-half turnovers," he said. "That was the difference."
The Bulldawgs' top two players, Benjamin and Carr, both are juniors. Benjamin had 21 points and five assists Saturday. Carr had 17 points, 14 rebounds and eight blocks.
"This is a great team," coach Benjamin said. "And I've got everybody back."
— James Yodice
NO. 1 CLEVELAND 55, NO. 3 LAS CRUCES 49
LAS CRUCES (14-1): David Cruz 1-4 0-0 3, Dustin Hicks 2-6 0-0 4, Kaden Self 2-6 0-0 4, Deuce Benjamin 7-20 5-7 21, Isaiah Carr 7-11 3-3 17, Suge Valles 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 19-48 8-10 49.
CLEVELAND (14-1): Tre Watson 6-13 5-7 17, Evan Gonzales 1-8 4-4 6, Nate Hasberry 6-10 4-4 17, Jeff Davison 1-2 0-0 2, Antonio Avila 4-8 0-0 8, Lucas Lovato 0-4 0-0 0, Cole Savage 1-3 0-0 3, Trey Ortega 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 20-50 13-15 55.
Las Cruces 10 15 13 11 — 49
Cleveland 12 19 10 14 — 55
3-point goals: LC 3-10 (Benjamin 2-6, Cruz 1-4); C 2-10 (Hasberry 1-1, Savage 1-2, Gonzales 0-3, Lovato 0-2, Avila 0-1, Watson 0-1). Rebounds: LC 33 (Carr 14); C 28 (Watson 7). Assists: LC 9 (Benjamin 5); C 10 (Gonzales 3). Field-goal percentage: LC 39.6%; C 40%. Total fouls: LC 12; C 9. Steals: LC 4 (Benjamin 3); C 10 (Watson, Avila 3). Blocked shots: LC 9 (Carr 8); C 2 (Watson, Hasberry). Turnovers: LC 14; C 8.
Del Norte's surging program reached the top of the mountain Saturday afternoon.
Blazing through a regular season schedule in just 27 days, the top-seeded Knights captured the program's first-ever boys basketball state championship, beating Artesia 52-41 in the 4A title game at the Pit.
"It's just a relief, and there's been so much buildup trying to get to this point," said Del Norte head coach Jeron McIntosh. "Year after year, we've gotten close, and (this year), the kids could feel it, too. They could tell it was our year from the beginning."
Sophomore guard Shane Douma-Sanchez scored a game-high 23 points to go with four assists to top Del Norte (12-1).
Douma-Sanchez said he grew up around the game with his dad a varsity coach. He experienced the state championship tournament as an onlooker and made the most of his opportunity as a participant.
"This is a dream come true for me," Douma-Sanchez said. "I've been here since I was little, and I've been in the locker room doing everything. To finally win one with my dad here, and my friends, it feels awesome."
Artesia (11-4) had already built on last year's state quarterfinals appearance, reaching its first boys basketball final since 2009.
Two early buckets by Johntae Rodriguez in the game's opening 90 seconds did not portend what was to come. The Bulldogs made just one more field goal the rest of the half, and went 11 minutes and 31 seconds without a basket.
Nick Sanchez ended the long field goal drought, hitting a 3 with three minutes left in the half. If not for 12-for-15 first-half foul shooting, the Bulldogs' 25-19 halftime deficit would've likely been much larger.
"I think (the bad shooting) was a combination of a bunch of different things," said Artesia head coach Michael Mondragon, whose club shot 21 percent for the game. "A couple shots were in and out or all the way down and out. We got good looks and got what we wanted. We just missed shots. It's the game of basketball, and it's a make or miss sport."
Del Norte started to pull away midway through the third quarter.
Senior Feathers Valencia hit a 2 from the wing off a Judah Casaus feed, and Valencia followed up on the next possession nailing a jumper from the foul line.
Sophomore Roman Hileman tacked on a free throw with 3:05 left in the quarter, giving Del Norte a 34-23 lead.
Artesia responded to its first double-digit deficit with its best sequence of basketball in the game.
Rodriguez pulled up and nailed a 3 from the top of the key, which kicked off a 7-0 run for the Bulldogs.
Darius Bishop and Trenton Lee followed with layups, the latter closing the deficit to 34-30 with 35 ticks left in the quarter.
Del Norte held the ball for the final shot of the quarter, and Casaus' hit was likely his biggest shot of the season. From the left wing, he nailed his only 3 of the game just before the third-quarter horn, pushing the Del Norte lead back to seven.
Casaus added 15 points and five steals, and at the most critical juncture of the game, four of the five players on the court were underclassmen.
"We have a lot of sophomores, and (the underclassmen) all stepped up big," Douma-Sanchez said. "We're going to be around for a while."
Sanchez scored a team-high 21 points, which included a perfect 14-for-14 from the foul line.
NO. 1 DEL NORTE 52, NO. 2 ARTESIA 41
Artesia (11-4): Johntae Rodriguez 3-11 7-8 14, Cord Cox 0-5 0-2-0, Bjorn Mauritsen 0-0 0-0-0 , Nick Sanchez 3-8 14-14-21, Jacob Barrera 0-0 0-0-0, Trenton Lee 1-3 0-0-2 , Jacob Creighton 0-9 1-2-1, D'andre Calvillo 0-0 0-0-0, Marcos Tavera 0-0 0-0-0, Darius Bishop 1-3 0-0-2, Joe Palma 0-0 0-0-0, Nemica Hernandez 0-0 0-1-0, Cameron Thorpe 0-0 0-0-0 , Payton Deans 0-0 1-2-1. Totals: 8-39 23-29-41
Del Norte (12-1): Estevan DeVargas 0-2 0-0-0, Judah Casaus 7-14 0-0-15, Josh Tellez 1-3 0-0-2 , Noah Garcia 1-1 0-0-2, Elijah Terrin 0-0 0-0-0, Jude Tapia 0-0 0-0-0, Sal Terrazas 0-0 0-0-0, Feathers Valencia 2-6 0-0-5 , Dakota Melk 0-0 0-0-0, Roman Hileman 1-2 2-3-4, Xavier Evans 0-0 0-0-0, Aiden Hileman 0-0 0-0-0, Deion Jim 0-0 0-0-0, Shane Douma-Sanchez 6-16 8-10-23. Totals: 18-44 10-16-52.
Artesia 6 13 11 11 — 41
Del Norte 11 14 12 15 — 52
3-point goals: A 2-9 (Rodriguez 1-2, Sanchez 1-3, Cox 0-1, Creighton 0-2, Bishop 0-1). DN 6-19 ( Douma-Sanchez 3-6, Tellez 1-2, Casaus 1-4, Valencia 1-5, De Vargas 0-2). Rebounds: A 35 (Cox 9); DN 30 (Evans 8). Assists: A 2 (Lee, Sanchez -1); DN 9 (Douma-Sanchez 4). Steals: A 11 (Rodriguez 4); DN 11 (Casaus 5). Turnovers: A 21; DN 18. Team fouls: A 24; DN 24. Fouled out: A Cox, DN Tellez. — Patrick Newell