In a sign of progress, the Navajo Prep boys basketball team reached the Class 3A state semifinals.
The second seeded Eagles (26-3 overall) were ousted 49-36 to defending state champ Robertson Cardinals Friday at the Pit on the University of New Mexico campus.
This was Navajo Prep’s second trip to the Final Four round under the tenure of head coach Matt Melvin. During the shorten Covid season two years ago, the Eagles played in the state semifinals.
Last season it got as far as the quarterfinals.
“This group has worked extremely hard, and they’ve come such a long way,” Melvin said. “I’m super proud of the effort. Such a long season and so much work trying to get back to this point.
“Hats off to the guys and how hard they work (because) nothing’s promised, nothing’s guaranteed, so you just got to keep working and keep going at it,” he added. “We have a really young group, and we have a lot of guys in the locker room that are gonna come back, get this thing hopefully right.”
The Melvin-coached team didn’t get the start they wanted as the Eagles trailed 6-0 before scoring eight straight with junior guard Jude Thomas putting up half of those numbers.
“I was hoping to get a little bit quicker of a jump than they got on us,” Melvin said, while noting the 34 to 24 edge Robertson had in the rebounding department.
“I thought we would rebound a little better,” he said. “I really thought we would kind of win that or at least be even because we’re a half-court team.
“The rebounds are probably the biggest thing that kind of shocked me, and the loose balls,” he added. “They got every single loose ball. If it was loose, they got it.
“In tight games that’s what it comes down to.”
Behind a game-best 19 points, Robertson took the lead for good on a 3-point play from reserve forward Mateo Contreras late in the first for a 9-8 advantage.
Contreras, who was coming off a broken foot he suffered during last fall’s football season, picked up where he left off as he put in seven points.
His 3-pointer at the 2:37 mark earned Robertson a seven-point cushion before they settled for a 22-14 halftime lead.
“It’s difficult, but sometimes you get caught up in the moment and you get in a groove,” Contreras said of his play. “I think it just comes natural at that point, and I’m good now.”
Navajo Prep cut into that eight-point halftime deficit and outscored Robertson 13 to 10 in the third and trailed 32-27.
The Eagles got as close a 35-34 on corner trey from junior Wallen Descheeny at the 5:07 mark, but following that basket Prep had three costly turnovers.
Robertson capitalized on those mistakes, which led to a game-ending 14 to 2 run.
“We called a timeout and we regrouped,” Robertson coach James Branch said of his team’s response. “We just had to settle down and run our stuff. Sometimes we get a little crazy, myself included. There are moments to where we got to stay composed.”
Branch said they didn’t appreciate being called the underdogs entering the state tournament.
“We were disrespected by the media,” he said.
Branch said he was particularly satisfied with the way his club neutralized Prep’s offensive weapons.
“We played relentless defense, no holds barred defense,” the Robertson coach said. “We believe in ourselves as a team, as a unit. If we play with our rotations and get our guys back, we can do this thing.”
That concerted effort frustrated the Navajo Prep team as they shot 14-of-34 shots from the field and 3-of-16 from beyond the 3-point line.
“I thought they did a really good job of just matching up and getting the personnel they wanted on certain guys,” Melvin said. “They had a group effort and they just stacked the paint.”
And although junior Jude Thomas finished with a team-best 17 points, Melvin said he had to work hard for those points.
“They did a really good job of helping when Jude would make a move or anybody,” he said. “I thought they really tightened up the paint better than us.”
The Eagles got a combined 14 points from junior Orion King (eight) and senior Lucius Hale (six) inside while the rest of the guards scored five.
It didn’t help that sophomore Xavier Nez got into foul trouble as he missed all of his three shot attempts.
“Those are the things you can’t really plan for, but you got to adapt,” Melvin said of having Nez on the bench. “Those things come and go, you got to figure it out. You got to find guys that can come in and do some things.”
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