By Kevin Wilson
Erika Cook and Kassandra Richards have seen just about everything as teammates at Portales High School. It was that familiarity that helped them knock Rio Rancho into unfamiliar territory.
Cook set up Richards for a late jumper from the baseline, giving Portales a 47-45 win over previously unbeaten Rio Rancho in Tuesday’s semifinal game at the Plateau Classic at Rock Staubus Gymnasium.
The Lady Rams move on to tonight’s championship against Clovis. In handing Rio Rancho (8-1) its first defeat of the season, Portales also exacted a bit of revenge — Rio Rancho, which will play St. Michael’s in today’s 2:45 p.m. third-place game, defeated Portales in the title game of the Mel Otero Invitational earlier this season.
Since losing to Rio Rancho, Portales (9-2) has won five in a row.
“It felt really good, especially to beat a team like that,” Richards said of her final shot, a 6-footer she lofted in with 2.7 seconds remaining. Richards said the closest she had come to a game-winner before was a game-tying 3-pointer — a feat she also accomplished in this game, knotting the score at 45 at the 2:02 mark.
Portales trailed 12-3 early in the game, but dictated the pace in the final three quarters to set up a dramatic finish. Late in the first quarter, Portales abandoned its wide-open offense and let its three senior guards (Cook, Richards and Roni Gomez) try to go one-on-one.
More often than not, they were able to get a layup or find a teammate left open from Rio Rancho double teams. The three accounted for 37 of Portales’ 47 points on the afternoon.
“I thought we were really patient,” Portales coach Brenda Gomez said. “They got impatient with their defense and we were able to score.”
Rio Rancho wasn’t, at least not by the same proportions. The Rams made several second chances for themselves with offensive rebounds, but shot just 20 of 57 and went to the free-throw line four times.
“Our shots weren’t going in and it kind of got in our heads,” said Rio Rancho coach Bob McIntyre, whose team missed a number of point-blank shots.
“I have confidence in them,” McIntyre said. “Why they didn’t have confidence puzzles and disappoints me.”
Portales was much more effective, hitting 16 of 27 from the field — five of them 3-pointers — and shot 10 of 19 at the free throw line.
It was that efficiency that kept Portales close to the 5A Rams and set up the dramatic finish. Portales ran down most of the final minute with a 45-45 tie, then ran a play for Cook in the final 15 seconds.
“We ran the play through,” Cook said. “We made a few minor changes to it (on the floor).”
Cook came off a double pick and penetrated the middle of the lane. Cook had the option to shoot, but she felt an instinct to pass the ball to Richards for a better shot on the baseline.
“Me and Kassandra and Roni have played with each other for a long time,” Cook said. “We just think exactly alike.”
Richards’ jumper dropped in with 2.7 seconds left, but Rio Rancho was without a timeout and couldn’t get the inbound pass off in time for even a desperation shot.
Richards said it was easier to get the offense clicking, with Cook playing defense on Rio Rancho’s Brio Rode, who is bound for the University of California. Cook, who scored 13 points, said it was her “first and foremost” duty to guard Rode, who finished with nine points.
Roni Gomez and Morgan Hill added nine each for Portales. Lavina Price led Rio Rancho with 11 points, while Britney Drumm scored all of her seven in the third quarter.