Portales junior Ashleah Richards walks off the court as Santa Fe Indian celebrates its 42-37 win over the Lady Rams in the Class 3A state championship game. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)
By Dave Wagner: Freeedom Newspapers
ALBUQUERQUE — Backed by a crowd of more than 14,000, Santa Fe Indian School completed an improbable run to the Class 3A state by beating Portales 42-37 Friday at The Pit.
The eighth-seeded Braves, with no seniors and only four juniors on the roster, were buoyed by boisterous support from a large throng of fans and played like seasoned veterans in ending Portales’ bid for a third straight 3A title and its fourth Blue Trophy in five years.
The game was played before a crowd announced by the New Mexico Activities Association at 14,200, which it said was the largest ever to see a high school girls basketball game in the United States.
Junior Kaylina Abeyta scored 14 points and Santa Fe Indian (22-7) held the Lady Rams scoreless for a nine-minute stretch of the second half that carried into the final seconds of the game.
“Since no one believed in us, that motivated us all the way,” said Abeyta, the daughter of Santa Fe Indian coach Johnny Abeyta. “We had to believe in ourselves, and we did.”
For the Lady Rams, it was a disappointing ending to what was actually an impressive run to the finals. Portales graduated three four-year varsity veterans after last season, yet still made another strong showing.
“We had kids playing at the varsity level that hadn’t experienced that before,” Gomez noted. “They had all the pressure on their shoulders. I really think we did really well, considering the ballhandlers and shooters that we lost (to graduation).”
The Lady Rams (16-12) never really got going in this one. They fell behind 5-0 in less than 1 1/2 minutes and, although they rallied to take the lead several times, were never able to build a working margin.
Junior Ashleah Richards said the team knew it would have a battle on its hands after watching Santa Fe Indian’s 55-53 overtime win over Thoreau in Thursday’s semifinals.
“We watched them yesterday and saw what they could do,” she said. “They weren’t a No. 8 seed (in ability).”
Eighth-grader Tara Johnson was Portales’ leading scorer with nine points, while junior Megan Kabrick added eight. Kabrick was was called for a technical foul in the fourth quarter when her elbow apparently caught a Lady Braves player trying to pressure her.
“It wasn’t intentional,” she said. “I was just trying to get her off of me and get the ball downcourt.”
It was typical of how things went for the Lady Rams. They shot just 29 percent in the second half (6 for 21) and slowly fell further behind in the final period as their offense dried up.
“I was proud of the kids for the fact that they didn’t quit,” Gomez said. “It seemed like one time we shot about seven or eight times in the paint and couldn’t make it.
“It was just one of those nights.”
For Santa Fe Indian, it was a dream finish to the season. The Lady Braves made some noise by beating top-seeded Grants 56-52 on Tuesday.
“We represent all Native Americans,” Johnny Abeyta said. “When they see us play, they see themselves.
“These girls work really hard. They get up at 6 in the morning and shoot free throws by themselves, and that shows their commitment to the program.”
Gomez was gracious in defeat.
“I credit (SFIS) a lot,” she said. “Defensively, they were on us pretty good, and we didn’t handle their pressure very well.”
With the majority of the crowd howling for the underdog Lady Braves, it sounded like a road game for Portales.
“Their support is unbelievable,” Gomez said. “That’s a coach’s dream. But I don’t know if it was a factor in our (play).”
Portales could well make another run at state next season. Of its top nine players, only guard Patty Terry is a senior.