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If team wins a basketball championship and there’s no one there to see it, did it really happen?
In the case of the Las Cruces High School Bulldawgs, the answer is a resounding, Yes!
The Bulldawgs won the 5A boys state title March 14 at the Pit in Albuquerque, an arena that holds 15,411. But due to Coronavirus precautions, the New Mexico Activities Association limited attendance to players, coaches, officials and arena personnel. Media was prohibited as well.
“It was a different feeling to it with no one being there,” said LCHS coach William Benjamin. “But once you start playing it doesn’t matter. You generate your own energy, your own excitement.”
The 29-3 Bulldawgs won the title game 65-53 over Santa Fe Capital. March 12, LCHS defeated Volcano Vista 47-31 in the semifinal, and in the quarterfinal March 11, beat Clovis 51-46. The Bulldawgs made the trip to Albuquerque for the state tournament by defeating Gadsden 86-62 March 7 during its first-round game at home in Las Cruces.
A stifling matchup zone defense helped LCHS win the final two games by relatively comfortable margins, 16 and 12 points.
“That defense helped us dictate the tempo, get steals, limit their shot attempts, and force them into shots they wouldn’t normally take,” said Benjamin, adding he was inspired to use the defense by his college coach from his playing days at New Mexico State University.
McCarthy always said the hardest part of a tournament is preparation, and if you can throw your opponents a surprise, it can give you an edge when there is only a short time between games.
“We practiced that defense the whole year, but never ran it,” Benjamin said. “And I got to thinking about (Coach McCarthy) and about that defense, and realized we had the personnel, we had enough length to go along with our speed to pose problems with smaller teams with smaller guards.”
Indeed, the closest game the Bulldawgs had during its run was the quarterfinal against Clovis. LCHS won by just five points, and if they hadn’t done well hitting free throws at the end, it would have been even closer.
“Against Clovis, we were very tight, and they played well,” Benjamin said. “They had an enormous person in the middle (senior center Bryce Cabeldue), and he posed problems for us.”
Being ranked at or near the top in 5A all year brings its own set of pressures, but Benjamin said he told his players not to listen to outside people, but to “focus on us, focus on our goals. That was one of the benefits to not having anyone in the stadium those last two games. It allowed our kids to focus.”
Another thing that helped his team focus were his seniors, Benjamin said. This year’s team is an unusual blend of seniors and sophomores.
“At the beginning of the season, several juniors left, so our sophomores had to step up. We have five seniors who have made it through this program and for this state tournament, they stepped their leadership up to the third power,” Benjamin said. “We talk about our four C’s — compete, chemistry, competent and character. Character is who you are outside of basketball. And our seniors, especially Mahlon Everhart, who doesn’t play that much, supplied leadership, along with Sal Nevarez, Josiah Montoya, Ray Brown and Gonzalo Corbalan, and they helped the underclassmen understand what we had to do.”