The Associated Press
ALBUQUERQUE — Tara Johnson’s leg was shaking. Her heart was pounding. Her mouth was dry and her palms moist.
But her free throws? As soft as a morning breeze.
Johnson made two free throws with 15.9 seconds remaining, leading Portales into the girls Class 3A championship game for the seventh straight year as the Rams beat St. Michael’s 32-31 in the semifinals Thursday.
“I was so nervous,” Johnson said. “My leg was shaking and I was scared. But I knew I was going to make it.”
The top-seeded Rams (19-8) will play No. 2 Hope Christian (26-4) in Friday’s final. Portales has won four of the past six titles under coach Brenda Gomez, who said it never gets old to chase the blue trophy.
“No, no, no,” she said. “You love to compete to be the best. I would hate to be around when it doesn’t happen.”
This one was no gimme, though, not with the No. 12-seeded Lady Horsemen (13-17) taking the defending champs to the wire.
Marissa Peterson’s putback with 28 seconds to play put St. Michael’s ahead 31-30, but she was whistled for her fifth foul moments later while trying to stop Johnson on a fastbreak — placing the team’s go-to player on the bench.
“I knew I had to play good D,” said Peterson, who led St. Mike’s with 10 points and seven rebounds. “I set my feet and I tried to block the shot. I’m not a ref. I thought I had my feet set.”
After Johnson made her free throws, the Rams turned it over. With the Horsemen inbounding under their own basket, Gomez switched from a zone defense to a man-to-man, and it prompted a decisive turnover when Jordan Miller threw the ball away.
“We were going to search for someone who wants to take the shot,” St. Michael’s coach Martin Romero explained. “We kind of froze there when they covered our reverse person on the inbounds play. We had no options.”
St. Mike’s nearly pulled off a huge upset. The Horsemen trailed 29-22 with five minutes remaining but rallied with a 7-1 run, fueled by Romero’s switch to a man-to-man defense and capped by a 3-pointer by Erica Martinez with 1:19 to go.
“We were a 12 seed with nothing to lose,” Romero said. “It was our kind of ballgame. We’re not going to beat any teams to 60 points.”
Vicki Huber had six points and seven rebounds for Portales.