By Eric Butler: CNJ correspondent
RIO RANCHO — It was a split decision for eastern New Mexico’s prep girls basketball teams Thursday at the Mel Otero Invitational.
Clovis earned its way into the semifinal round with a 64-38 victory over Highland, while Portales lost to Los Lunas 33-24.
For the victorious Lady Wildcats, the final winning margin of 26 points was a bit deceptive as Clovis (4-0) was nursing a six-point margin with less than a minute to go in the third quarter. What ignited the fourth period runaway was accurate 3-point shooting that had been missing in the first part of the contest.
Clovis hit only two-of-12 3-pointers in the first half, but an Ebony Bunton baseline trey to start the second half signaled a big change.
“In the first half, we could just not get in the rhythm,” Clovis coach Miles Watters said. “We kind of settled down in the second half, got our feet settled, and did a better job of hitting them — and that opened that zone wide-open.”
Although Highland (1-5) hung around in the third quarter, Tori Northcutt’s 3 with 42 seconds left gave the Lady Cats a 43-34 advantage. Bunton’s long 3-pointer at the buzzer made it a 12-point margin heading into the final stanza.
“We knew they’d start falling somehow. We couldn’t stop shooting,” said Clovis sophomore Brittany Johnson, whom Watters credited for her defensive play throughout the game.
The Lady Cats, ranked third in the Albuquerque Journal’s preseason coaches poll, play top-ranked Sandia at 5 p.m. today in the semifinals of the eight-team tournament. Sandia got past Aztec 57-49 on Thursday.
Bunton finished with a game-high 19 points while Northcutt added nine for Clovis, who won the Mel Otero Invite a year ago. Highland standout Deeva Vaughn finished with seven points and 13 rebounds. Dallas Norman led the Hornets with 14 points.
“You’ve got to give it to them,” Highland coach Jon Ingram said. “They’ve got the kids that can hit the shots and that’s what good teams do, they find ways to win.”
Turnovers plagued Portales (1-2) against Los Lunas (3-3), although future Eastern New Mexico University player Clarissa Krum did her part to do in the Lady Rams, too.
Krum finished with 11 points and six rebounds while dishing out four assists. Last year, Krum was a critical player in a loss to Portales in the same tournament.
“I missed two free throws to win last year, but I told myself that’s old history and to just go out there and win,” said Krum, who will move to Portales next year to play college ball for the Zias.
Krum and fellow 6-footer Kameo Pena caused matchup problems for the smaller Portales players inside as the pair of Tigers combined to score 14 of the first 15 points for Los Lunas (3-3).
Portales coach Brenda Gomez pointed to her team’s 25 turnovers — 15 in the first half, as the major reason why Portales’ offense was having so many problems operating.
“The (defensive) pressure was the difference and we’ve got to get accustomed to that,” Gomez said. “We’ve got to get confident in our ball-handling.”
Portales plays Onate, a 69-45 loser Thursday to host Rio Rancho, in a 1 p.m. consolation semifinal today.
Mel Otero Invitational
At Rio Ranchohursday
Sandia 57, Aztec 49
Los Lunas 33, Portales 24
Clovis 64, Highland 38
Rio Rancho 69, Onate 45
Portales vs. Onate, 1 p.m.
Highland vs. Aztec, 3 p.m.
Clovis vs. Sandia, 5 p.m.
Los Lunas vs. Rio Rancho, 7 p.m.