By Eric Butler: CNJ correspondent
RIO RANCHO — Redemption is hard to come by when it’s at the home court of a consistently successful program. But the Clovis Wildcats triumphed at one of its few trouble spots from a year ago by beating host Rio Rancho 44-35 in the finals of the 5th annual Mel Otero Invitational on Saturday night.
Led by the junior post tandem of Brittany Blackmon and Aimee Hilburn, the Wildcats turned around an 18-16 deficit by connecting for seven straight points at the end of the second quarter and two more baskets to start the third.
Hilburn, who finished with nine points and eight rebounds, began the run with a three-point play. Two free throws and a driving basket from sophomore Tori Northcutt gave Clovis (7-0) a 23-18 halftime advantage.
The third period started with Hilburn connecting for a bucket and Tori Quintana nailing a 3-pointer for a 28-18 lead.
“We don’t like losing. We want to come out with a perfect season this year,” Quintana said.
Clovis only suffered four losses in the 2003-04 campaign. Once at Hobbs, once in the state championship game to Mayfield and twice (to Rio Rancho and Dallas Kimball) at last year’s Mel Otero Invitational.
“We talked about trying to win this. That was one of our short goals and we got that accomplished, so I’m real excited about that,” Clovis coach Miles Watters said. “I was just impressed by our defense. If they got loose, we had people helping and shutting them down at the basket.”
Rio Rancho (6-2) was led by eight points apiece from Tahni Edmo and Stevie Puentes.
The Rams were able to recover from one deficit early in that game.
Trailing 16-9 after one quarter, a 9-0 run — including 3s from Tahni Edmo and Kiah Rotunno — gave Rio Rancho the short-lived two point lead in the second quarter.
But, shooting just 28 percent from the floor, the Rams were only able to reduce the margin in the fourth quarter to as close as eight points — in the last minute of the game.
“We were also only six of 13 from the line and if we’re going to be a quality team like that we’re going to have to do better from the free throw line,” Rio Rancho coach Bob McIntyre said.
Blackmon led all scorers with 15 points while Hilburn added eight.
Vanessa O’Neal, who tallied eight points, also provided a big spark off the bench for Clovis in the first quarter.
In a 9-9 tie, O’Neal scored one basket on a pass from Hilburn. She also got the next tally when she grabbed a Blackmon miss near the goal and out-jumped the taller interior Rio Rancho defenders to get off her shot.
“We didn’t play well at all, mostly that’s what I remember,” said O’Neal of her recollections of last year’s tournament. “I think we also should have won it last year, because we had all the skills we have now.”
“She can really go get it. She plays hard,” said Watters of O’Neal. “Vanessa gave us a huge spark early. She came in and got a couple of baskets right off the bat.”