Sunday, March 4, 2012

After dramatic comeback, Eagles' return-to-glory story not over just yet

  I’ll admit, I thought the Hobbs boys basketball team’s season was finished. Done. Game over.
  Trailing No. 11 Sandia 63-51 with just over four minutes left in the game and having played seven-and-a-half consecutive sluggish quarters (including the poor performance during a loss to Clovis in the District 4-5A Tournament championship game), I was already thinking of how I was going to write the sixth-seeded Eagles’ epitaph.
  But how could a turnaround campaign under first-year coach Mike Smith where the Eagles turned a 12-17 record last season into a 19-8 mark and a District 4-5A regular-season championship this season finish with two such poor performances? It didn’t seem fair to the Eagles – particularly to this group of seniors – and to its fans.
  Suddenly, a spark in the form of 5-foot-9 Andrew Barrientes turned a fire that was about to die into a raging blaze. The senior, a great shooter who nearly air balled a free throw early in the fourth quarter, scored seven points in 35 seconds to help save Hobbs’ season.
  It was part of a 13-0 run – thanks in large part to the Eagles’ pressure-packed press – as Hobbs took a 64-63 lead with 1:23 left before Sandia took the lead back at 67-66 with 40.2 seconds remaining.
  That’s when another senior stepped up.
  Aaron Ibarra, who is averaging 24.7 points per game, was just 3-for-14 from the field when Smith set up a play to give Ibarra the ball isolated against his defender.
  The trust in his senior paid off for Smith as Ibarra took his defender, freed himself up with a spin move and scored a contested layup with 8.2 seconds left to give Hobbs the lead for good at 68-67 and move the Eagles on to the state quarterfinals against La Cueva on Wednesday at The Pit in Albuquerque.
  To recover from a 12-point deficit with four minutes left against a team as solid as Sandia (the Matadors are much better than a No. 11 seed) is amazing. Period. I don’t like using the word amazing but there is no other way to describe what happened at Tasker Arena this particularly Saturday night.
  It’s the four minutes that saved Hobbs’ season and could be the catalyst for something bigger. If these final 240 seconds that rescued the Eagles’ season can’t return the Eagles to its free-flowing, relaxed brand of controlled, full-court pressing chaos that won them eight games in a row prior to the District 4-5A Tournament title game loss, nothing will.
  The pressure is gone for Hobbs. There is nothing to lose. Third-seeded La Cueva will be the favorite Wednesday. Everyone will probably be penciling the Bears into the semifinals.
  But La Cueva is beatable. It hasn’t faced a full-court pressing team like Hobbs.
  The story of the Eagles’ turnaround 2011-12 season and return to tradition isn’t over yet. Hobbs wouldn’t let that happen Saturday.
  Heck, it may still have another chapter or two to write.

(This column appears in Sunday's edition of the Hobbs News-Sun.)