RIO RANCHO – It ended with an unsatisfying thud.
Top-seeded Socorro was unable to unveil the spark and verve that marked a monumental, season-long rise from afterthought to Class 3A boys state basketball tournament favorite.
Faced in the semifinals Friday with a rugged St. Michael’s team that had clawed its way to respectability following an 0-10 start, the Warriors simply never got untracked at the Rio Rancho Events Center.
“Since about three or four weeks ago, I went and watched St. Michael’s play Sandia Prep and I knew they were going to be a very tough match up for us,” J.J. Griego said. “They’re bigger and they’re stronger and they’re more physical.”
All of that proved to be true as the Horseman manhandled Socorro in a 63-33 defeat. St. Mike’s went on to lose the state finals Saturday to Robertson, a team the Warriors had beaten twice during the season.
Socorro (22-6) found itself struggling almost from the outset when dynamic guard Duda Jackson picked up two early fouls. He was unable to display his special array of offensive and defensive capabilities, finishing with just one point before officials indicated he had fouled out with five fouls. All told, he spent more time on the end of the bench than on the court, totaling 10:51 minutes of playing time, although a later look at the official scorebook showed him with just four fouls.
“Once we got in foul trouble, it was very difficult,” Griego said.
It was a case where small-town realities came back to bite the Warriors as the team was used to playing with two-man officiating crews the majority of the season.
“I think the fact that we play with two-man crews most of the year, so we were able to be aggressive like that,” he said. “And so, the last three games, it was really the first time we’ve seen three man crews and we adjusted to it in the other games and (Friday) we ran out of luck. We had a crew that was calling it a little bit tighter. And our aggressiveness got the best of us, especially with our main player, Duda.”
St. Michael’s coach David Rodriguez said the Jackson-led Warriors were a team that worried him coming into the game.
“We knew going into the game, he’s a catalyst,” Rodriguez said. “Duda, when he touches the ball, he makes things happen. We went box and one on him. Hats off to Socorro, they’re a great team. I lost sleep watching them play. When he gets open, he hits shots and I told these guys do not let him get open. They shadowed him and did not let him get open. And I think he got frustrated and that’s what caused his foul trouble.”
Griego said the coaches anticipated a tightly called game and tried to prepare the players for it.
“The only thing that was disappointing, we discussed before we went out there, watch your fouls in the first half. Watch your fouls in the first half. Watch your fouls in the first half,” he said. “We do that every game. That’s the main reason we played a 2-3 (zone). That’s pretty much the only reason we play a 2-3. I’m a man to man guy but we played 2-3 because we are a shorter and smaller team. That’s the kids we have.”
And the Horsemen had just a bit too much firepower for Socorro to handle.
“We ran into somebody who was physical with us and rebounded and we got our best player…To be honest with you, I think Duda Jackson is one of the top-five players in the state, in any class. But when he’s sitting on the bench, he’s not going to do us any good.”
Still, making it this far was quite an experience, said guard Warren Chewiwi, who led the Warriors with 15 points.
“It was really sick,” he said. “I really enjoyed it. I’ve been part of this (program) for three years and we’ve never come this far. I couldn’t have imagined even making it to the tournament. The hard work really pays off to get there. The offseason, the conditioning that the coach makes us do. Running hills, making us send him videos of all the hill sprints. Being a family.”
This, Chewiwi said, is just a prelude for Socorro basketball.
“We’ll be back,” he said. “We had our experience of making it to the show. I’ve never played in it. And I think it’s huge for us. We have Marquez (Armijo) coming back next year, I think we’ll be fine. We’ll make a run at it again next year and we’ll be on top.”