Tension was in the air as two 1-1 teams in District 1-4A went to work against each other Saturday night in a pivotal game.
Piedra Vista had extra incentive to record a victory. It was PV first-year head coach Adam Huff's first game coaching against the school he won two state championships as a player with, Kirtland Central.
Saturday's game was played at a frenzied pace, but a stellar second half from Jacob Armijo helped Piedra Vista build a lead Kirtland Central couldn't quite overcome as the Panthers hung on to win 72-68.
"It feels really good. I was a little nervous. If it was at Kirtland, I would have been really nervous," Huff said. "We had such good support tonight and getting into a game like that where it is hard fought and against a school I have a relationship with, it feels good. I told the guys I didn't want to lose to my old team. I think it gave them some extra motivation."
Neither team needed much extra motivation. At 1-1, both teams were playing for their lives in District 1-4A.
It showed immediately.
The two teams got up and down the floor, hitting shots inside the paint and from the perimeter.
The biggest difference in the close game was turnovers.
Stymied by PV's full-court pressure defense, Kirtland turned the ball over 27 times Saturday compared to just 10 PV turnovers.
"We knew Kirtland's guards struggle with some pressure, and they can turn it over under pressure," Huff said. "Their big thing is to go inside to (Christian) Mackey. If you pressure their guards, it makes it tougher to get the ball inside."
Mackey still went to work, scoring a game-high 24 points while hauling in 15 rebounds and blocking five shots.
"We had a lot of turnovers, but the guys gave maximum effort, and I am okay with that," said Kirtland Central head coach John Zecca. "Mackey is like a coach on the floor, which is huge in a game like this where it is loud because a lot of times the guys can't hear me. He was huge tonight, again."
Kirtland Central (9-14, 1-2 District 1-4A ) practices well against the press, but still struggles with it in games, Zecca said.
"The kids get rattled. We weren't doing what we are supposed to do against the press. When you get in games like that, you forget everything the coaches told you. I don't know how many balls we threw away just trying to inbound it," Zecca said.
PV (12-11, 2-1) was led by Armijo's 23 points, 18 of which came in the second half when he heated up from 3-point land.
"Our key tonight was to hustle. We got out-hustled the other night in the third quarter against Farmington, and we can't do that anymore," Armijo said. "For me, the first half was a little too emotional, and I needed to calm down. The second half, I came out ready to play and ready to get the win."
Huff said it was a perfect time for Armijo to finally re-establish a groove.
Isaiah Valdez played a huge role in the first half, scoring 13 of his 19 points in the opening 16 minutes.
Valdez showed no fear of Mackey, going right at the Kirtland big man and finishing at the rim.
"Mackey is a great player, for sure. He is big, but me and him always have a good time when we face each other," Valdez said. "It felt good to step up. I give it to my guards for getting me the ball. It was really good to have a game like that after the loss to FHS."
PV had a chance to run away with the game in the first half. Leading by nine, PV's Bryson Martinez was hit for a technical foul after Shanahan Wilson was whistled for a personal foul against Mackey. Mackey hit one of two shots on the two-shot foul and both technical free throws, and then Kirtland drained a 3-point basket out of the inbounds play.
"We did great with our press, but didn't do enough to finish the opportunities in the first quarter. We were doing good in the second quarter until that technical came down, and then we lost it going into halftime," Huff said.
PV only committed 14 personal fouls in the game. Meanwhile, Kirtland Central was called for nine in the first quarter alone.
Ty Jaquez scored another 12 points in the win for PV while Kirtland Central's Bud Willie had an exceptional game with 23 points in the loss.
Both teams are left with two road games and one home game as the District 1-4A season winds down.
Kirtland will travel to Farmington on Saturday before closing the season at Aztec and at home against Piedra Vista.
"We are still in it. We can win district with two losses, but we can't win it with three," Zecca said. "Every one is going to press us from here. Why wouldn't they? We have to go clean up our heads and get in the games and play with confidence in those situations. We can't let down at all. The guys know they played pretty good overall in this game, but they also know they have to get better in tight situations and against the press."
PV will travel to Aztec before hosting FHS.
"We are in the position we want to be. Second place for us gets us into the tournament, but our team is thinking district championship," Huff said. "I am not thinking district. I am looking big picture for state. But we have to get success in the program, and the first step to that is a district championship. We have a three-game season left, and then we can go from there."