By Dave Wagner
ALBUQUERQUE — After losing twice to Portales by double-figure margins in late December and early January, the Bernalillo Spartans hardly looked like they were in position to defend their Class 3A title.
Saturday, though, they returned the favor against the Rams and earned back-to-back titles for the first time in school history with a 53-43 win in the championship game at The Pit.
Keith Benally, a stocky 6-foot senior forward, scored 17 points and grabbed 11 rebounds as the Spartans built a 15-point lead through three quarters, then held on after PHS (19-9) closed to two points twice in the final four minutes.
“We’ve had several occasions in the past to (try to) go back-to-back,” Bernalillo coach Terry Darnell said. “This is a proud moment in my coaching career. Back-to-back is big.”
Darnell said the seeding process used by the NMAA this year worked in his team’s favor, giving the Spartans a relatively favorable draw from the No. 5 positions. The second-seeded Rams came in as the favorite based on their two wins over Bernalillo and the fact the Spartans had taken on top-seeded Grants in the semifinals.
“The big difference today was we didn’t get the lead early,” Rams coach Mark Gallegos said. “I knew today would be a battle.”
Benally, who had three of Bernalillo’s five 3-pointers, got himself going when he banked in a 3-pointer midway through the first quarter. That basket put the Spartans ahead 7-6, and they never relinquished the lead.
Three-pointers by Eric Tafoya and Benally in the final two minutes of the half opened a 23-17 margin for Bernalillo (22-9). The Spartans then scored the first seven points of the second half for a 13-point margin.
It was 39-24 at the end of the quarter, but the Rams suddenly came to life and made a game of it.
Senior Chris Carter and junior Chris Adkins each converted two free throws, then Carter scored a layup off a steal by Adkins to trim the margin to nine with seven minutes left.
Rebound baskets by Bo Gabriel and Adkins each cut the margin to two points, the latter at 41-39 with 2:18 left. But the Spartans connected on 8-of-12 free throws and converted a couple of turnovers into layups in the remaining time to win going away.
“We lost our focus for a little while, but we held it together,” Benally said of Portales’ fourth-quarter comeback.
Senior Pierre Williams came off the bench to add 13 points for Bernalillo.
“On this team, everybody contributed,” Benally said. “Different people come in and fill different roles”
Portales lost starters Chris Kirchner and Jack Hale to fouls, with neither player scoring. Carter finished with 12 points and junior Daniel Aranda added 10 for the Rams, who shot just 31 percent for the game.
The Rams’ record hovered around .500 in mid-January before they went off on a run of 11 wins in 12 games to reach the finals.
“We had a lot of high expectations at the beginning of the year,” Carter said. “We just didn’t get a couple of wins early, but then we got on a role and our confidence kept building.
“We knew we were a good team.”