The divide between the Desert Academy boys basketball program and the rest of Class A is no longer a physical one.
Whatever gulf in talent and skill the Wildcats suffered from against the rest of the state has been closed. The mountain they have to climb to become an elite team is cultural.
On Saturday, the To’hajiilee Warriors showed Desert Academy what it lacks. The Warriors expected to beat the Wildcats, and handily at that. They did that with a 92-63 win in a District 2A game in Larson Gymnasium at New Mexico School for the Deaf.
Meanwhile, Desert Academy (11-8 overall, 7-4 2A) walked off the court in the first half in childlike wonder that it was within four points of the co-district leaders at halftime. But this is a program that hasn’t seen the postseason since 2005, and it’s clear that the Wildcats haven’t made the mental leap that they are that good. This despite handing Magdalena, the No. 2 team in A, its only loss by a 50-45 count on Jan. 18.
“When we took over this program three years ago, it was a culture of losing,” Desert Academy head coach Jonathan Salazar said. “They haven’t been to state since 2005. They don’t expect to win, even when they have a lead.”
Desert Academy, which fell behind 12-0 at the start, rallied to take a 26-19 lead and still led 39-35 on Zack Snyder’s layup with 3:04 left of the first half. The Wildcats looked poised and confident up to that point, as they navigated the Warriors’ full-court press effectively.
“The first half, we executed perfectly,” Desert Academy guard Sudi Torres said. “We were able to break the press and we were able to make the right passes and see the right openings.”
The cracks, though, started to show toward the end of the first half as Wildcats turnovers led to To’hajiilee transition baskets. Desert Academy turned the ball over three straight times, and the Warriors took a 40-39 lead on A.J. Apachito’s 3-pointer at 2:36.
There were two more turnovers for the Wildcats, and To’hajiilee (18-2, 8-1) grew the lead to 45-39 before Michael Montoya’s breakaway layup with :05 made it a four-point deficit. Warriors head coach Roberta Secatero said her team simply didn’t play with the intensity level she expected.
“We just weren’t being aggressive enough in the first half,” Secatero said. “I want them to give 120 percent. I believe that was not what they were giving me.”
It was completely different in the second half. To’hajiilee’s pressure made the Wildcats crack, as they collected 19 turnovers after the break. Desert Academy committed four turnovers in a 90-second stretch and the Warriors grew a 51-46 margin to 60-46 in the third. That was the start of a 17-1 spurt that put an end to the Wildcats’ chances.
Salazar felt the Warriors’ pressure speed up the tempo, and his team hasn’t learned yet to slow the game down in their minds.
“That’s something that comes with experience,” Salazar said. “We’ll get the guys in the film room. We’ll take along look at the film, and they’ll see.”
More important, the Wildcats will see they are not what they used to be.