Eagles can't wrangle the Steers

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The Magdalena boys basketball team was probably in need of a solid challenge after it ran through its first two opponents in the Steer Stampede by a combined score of 131-58. When it ran into Native American Community Academy in the tournament final on Saturday, a challenge is precisely what it got.

The Eagles overcame a 39-24 halftime deficit and pushed Mag to the brink, but the host team held on for a 65-57 victory.

The Steers improved to 3-0 on the season, while NACA dropped to 4-1.

The Albuquerque-based charter school had also made a relatively easy run to the final in beating Alamo Navajo and Hatch by a total of 114 points, and Steers head coach Jory Mirabal knew his team would be in for a welcome dogfight.

"Those games are a lot better for a team like us," he said. "A team like that (NACA) will show you where your weaknesses are. I was proud of our kids for overcoming some adversity."

Although it didn't look like it would be much of a contest in the early going. Steers junior post Sedrick Apachito scored nine points in the first quarter to help give his team a 19-10 lead. Then Dre Montoya chipped in eight of his own in the second quarter as Magdalena built a 15-point halftime lead.

After running up and down the court in wins against Evangel Christian and Carrizozo, Magdalena slowed the game down and proved it can find success in a half-court offense. Mirabal said he thought NACA looked comfortable playing a fast-tempo style, so changing things up and running some offensive sets was part of the game plan.

"We came in with the mindset of 'let's see what they can do in the half-court,'" he said. "When we need to play a half-court game, we can. You're going to have games where you do that. There's no way you can play the style of game like we played the first two games, for 32 games. You can't rely on that and be successful."

Mag's methods worked to a tee for the first 20 minutes of the game, and when Montoya hit his second 3-pointer of the evening the Steers were in the driver's seat with a 46-29 third-quarter lead.

But the Eagles are a veteran team with eight upperclassmen on the roster, and they went on a 9-2 run during the final four minutes of the third to cut the lead to 48-38.

In the fourth, the outcome was looking a bit more uncertain for the home team.

With 1 minute and 47 seconds left in the game, NACA had dug into the Mag lead to make the score 57-51, but Steers sophomore Barak Stephens checked into the game and intentionally or not became the basketball equivalent to a closer in baseball. He stole an Eagles pass at midcourt and drew an intentional foul. Then after a NACA free throw he stole the ball against and ran the court for a layup that gave Magdalena a 60-52 lead. On the Eagles' ensuing in-bounds pass, he created yet another turnover that resulted in two successful Montoya free throws, and the Steers were in control and leading 61-52 with 53 seconds remaining in the game.

Montoya and Tyler Julian both scored five points in the fourth quarter to help seal the 65-57 Mag victory.

Apachito led all scorers with 18 points, Montoya chipped in 17 and Stephens and Julian added 10 each for the Steers.

Shyler Becenti had 13 points for NACA, and Josh Wade and Josh Aragon also each scored 10 points.

Julian, Apachito and Montoya were also named to the all-tournament team.

It's undoubtedly been a good start for the young Steers, but Mirabal knows it's still very early in the season and his team has plenty of room for improvement. Mag got into some early foul trouble, and 31 of NACA's points came in the paint.

"That is an area we need to improve on, our post defense," Mirabal said. "When we got into foul trouble tonight and we had to go to our zone, we weren't as comfortable with our rotations as I'd like us to be. We've some issues on our zone defense we can work on.

"I don't think it's something we're going to have to change from a philosophy standpoint; it's just something we're going to have to fine tune."

And the phrase "room for improvement" is technically a positive for this team. They're already playing at a high level, and as they continue to gel, there's no reason they shouldn't turn into a squad that's more than capable of making a solid run at a District 2-1A title.

"With a young team like that, you don't know what you're going to get," Mirabal said. "I really enjoyed watching us as a team. I think we grew over the three games and I'm really excited for what we've got. I don't think we're playing our best basketball yet."