Las Cruces is on a mission
Top-ranked Bulldawgs advance to face Academy in Joe Armijo Classic semis
Nobody, William Benjamin said, has been talking about his Las Cruces Bulldawgs all season.
Those were his words, and his sentiment, on the eve of last season’s Class 6A state championship boys basketball game, a game Las Cruces would lose to Volcano Vista.
Anonymity will not be on the menu this season.
The state’s No. 1-ranked team is in town this weekend for the Joe Armijo Classic at Albuquerque Academy. The Bulldawgs improved to 6-0 Thursday night with an 89-60 first-round victory over Clovis.
With all five starters returning from last season, Las Cruces figures to be a factor well into March.
“It’s easy to say we’re gonna be the team to beat,” said Benjamin, in his ninth season coaching the Bulldawgs. “But these kids, after getting a taste of that experience of being in the championship game, I think they want that feeling again.”
It began for Las Cruces less than 36 hours after that setback to Volcano Vista in the Pit. The team gathered that Monday morning, and collectively lit the fuse on this season.
“We talked about it,” said senior forward Vincente Johnson. “And we got back to work.”
If it’s true that 6A has at least half a dozen serious contenders, it is equally true that the list may begin with Las Cruces.
“We know we have a bull’s-eye on our backs,” said senior guard Markus Collins. “(But) making a deep run last season, it gave us a lot of experience, and this year, we know what to expect.”
Senior forward R.J. Brown, a force in the post, plus Collins and Johnson all average in double figures for Las Cruces, which last weekend won a close rematch with Volcano Vista, 57-55 on the Bulldawgs’ floor.
“They’ve got everything you need,” said Volcano Vista coach Greg Brown. “They’re athletic, and they’re structured. They are beating you with their press this year, and it’s leading them to easy buckets, and then they are also beating you with their half-court execution.”
The Bulldawgs felt it was important not to lose sight of the pain the Hawks inflicted on them last March as they went about rebounding.
“I think it was necessary,” said senior shooting guard Cayden Sherwood. To that end, he said, Las Cruces’ warm-up gear has the word “Redemption” written on it.
“We’re trying to have that same mentality,” Sherwood said, adding, “we should have won it last year.”
This is the first of two northern tournaments for Las Cruces this month. The Bulldawgs will play Albuquerque High in the first round of the Los Lunas event between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Las Cruces also will get current No. 2, Cleveland, at home next week. All the while, the Bulldawgs are gearing for a run in March.
“We don’t want to end up like we did last year,” said Brown, like Collins a four-year varsity veteran.
Thursday night, shooting guard Alanso Johnson poured in 24 points against Clovis. The Bulldawgs face the host Chargers at 6:30 tonight in the Armijo semifinals. This team has several dynamic guards, including Johnson and Collins, and also point guard Marcus Scott. Plus a deep and productive bench.
“We’re a smart group,” Collins said. “We’re not gonna beat ourselves. All of us hold each other accountable.”
Benjamin would seem to need only to keep this ship righted for three months.
“They’ve been real focused on getting better,” he said. “They’re good, unselfish kids.”
But Benjamin doesn’t want them getting caught up in their ranking or their record.
“Coach,” Sherwood said, “always tells us not to believe the hype.”
Cibola-West Mesa girls
At West Mesa, the Cougars started strong in both halves. The Mustangs survived the first push, they did not overcome the second.
Senior guard Amaya Brown scored a game-best 24 points for No. 2-ranked Cibola (6-0) in a convincing 68-47 victory over No. 5 West Mesa (4-2).
The game was tied at 22 and went on a lengthy wraparound run that carried into the third quarter. Meanwhile, Cibola’s defensive length on the perimeter for the most part locked up West Mesa.
Las Cruces’ R.J. Brown, right, blocks the shot of Clovis’ Jakeem Wynn during the first round of play in the Joe Armijo Classic.