KIRTLAND — A wild game at Bronco Arena saw the Kirtland Central Broncos take down the No. 2-ranked team in the state.
Leading 45-36 going into the fourth quarter, the Broncos shot just 7-for-18 from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter, allowing the Los Lunas Tigers to chip back into the game.
Los Lunas took a 62-61 lead in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter, but Seldon Watson hit two free throws for the Broncos to give Kirtland Central a one-point lead. But Los Lunas' Christian Sanchez, who scored a game-high 34 points, ran the length of the court with just 4.8 seconds remaining to get a shot off. Sanchez was unable to convert, but he was fouled on his shot attempt and was awarded two free-throw shots with 0.4 seconds remaining in regulation. Sanchez hit the first free-throw, but the second shot rimmed out to keep the Broncos alive.
In overtime, Kirtland Central (12-4) made their free throws and took advantage of a few key Los Lunas (10-5) turnovers to secure an 80-72 victory.
"We knew it was going to be a tough game, and we figured they would make a run in the second half. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves by missing a ton of free throws, but we made them at the end," said Kirtland Central head coach John Zecca. "Getting the win is a big confidence boost."
The Broncos finished the job without the services of star forward Christian Mackey, who battled foul trouble the entire second half before fouling out late in the fourth quarter.
"It was a blessing from God that we pulled together through adversity to get this win. The team pulled together, and it was amazing to watch," said Mackey, who finished the game with a team-high 19 points and 14 rebounds.
Reese Foutz also fouled out for the Broncos early in overtime. Watson and Wilbert Smith helped carry Kirtland Central down the stretch as Smith connected on all six of his seven free-throw attempts in overtime while also hitting a clutch 3-point basket. Watson was 7-of-9 from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter and overtime. Smith and Watson each scored 14 points in the victory.
"It was pure frustration when the free throws weren't falling for our guys," Smith said. "I was confident. I didn't think twice about my shots. I was just looking at the backboard."
The Broncos shot 23-of-46 from the foul line in the game.
"I told our guys they need to just remember the free throws they made at the end. They need to get that visualization in there head and do whatever it takes. It is just a mental thing," Zecca said. "Our guys haven't been in a whole lot of pressure-packed games. It is good experience, because there will be more to come."
Sanchez was nearly unstoppable much of the second half. After being held scoreless in the first quarter, the Los Lunas guard began making 3-point shots while getting to the line 22 times in the game. He connected on 19 of his free-throw attempts, but it was the one miss at the end of regulation that kept the Broncos alive.
"He is a special player. He will respond to any adversity that comes at him in the right way," said Los Lunas head coach Travis Julian. "I have confidence in him. We wouldn't have been in that position without him."
Jacob Holland added another 15 points for Los Lunas, and Chad Murphy scored 12 more in the loss.
Los Lunas' coaches were upset with the officiating in the game much of the night, and Julian was whistled for a technical foul in the second half. The technical foul set Kirtland up to go up by as many as 11 points, but the Broncos missed their free throws.
"I know Los Lunas was upset with the officiating, but I didn't see much going in favor of either team," Zecca said.
Zecca said his team will grow confidence from the win, especially finishing the game without Mackey and Foutz.
"I think we are believing that we are a pretty darn good team. Especially to beat a team like that in overtime without (Mackey). It is big," Zecca said.
The Broncos said it would be fun to see the Tigers again in the state tournament this season.
Julian said he doesn't necessarily wish to see the Broncos again, but he said his team would like to redeem both of their 4A losses this season.
"We have lost two tight games to 4A teams, Kirtland and (Albuquerque) Academy. You definitely hope that you get an opportunity to redeem yourself, but there is a lot of season left," Julian said. "We have to put this one behind us and focus on district. I know (this loss) motivates me. It better motivate (the players), too. I think when you have a loss like this, it could be a blessing in disguise because it motivates you to get into practice and get better."John Livingston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 505-564-4648. Follow him on Twitter @jlivi2.