ALBUQUERQUE — Clovis High junior Kamal Cass slumped over in a padded folding chair inside The Pit, his jersey covering his head.
Cass & Co. were reduced to tears while the booming voice echoed through the hallowed basketball building amid red-and-blue delirium: “And now for your Class 5A state champions,” the announcer said, “give it up for your Las Cruces Bulldawgs.”
Black and blue was more apropos for the fourth-seeded Wildcats after they were upended 61-49 by the sixth-seed Bulldawgs on Saturday night. Afterward, they trudged up the ramp, like in 2008, with red trophy in tow.
For five Wildcats, in particular, the loss was more crushing. Dijon Ford, D.J. Blackmon, John Dawson, Drew Cole and Marshall Winn have been together since they were sophomores. Cole said they started off as bench-warmers and worked themselves into the starting lineup.
“This was our dream since eighth grade,” Ford said, in the hallway outside Clovis’ locker room.
Blackmon was especially inconsolable. Clovis coach Matt King wrapped his arm around the guard’s waist and offered some words while the two walked up the ramp.
The senior, who led the Wildcats with 14 points, was as stoic and still as a statue during the postgame media session.
Trying to put into context what the loss meant for Clovis, which looked to capture its first state crown since 1979, Blackmon could only muster the obvious.
“Heartbreak,” he said, before bowing his head.
Clovis, cat-quick and with a starting five that featured a Division I signee in Marquette-bound Dawson and the undecided Blackmon, saw their title aspirations fade because of offensive doldrums. The Wildcats shot a paltry 38 percent from the field compared to Las Cruces’ molten 59 percent.
In truth, it was a bit shocking how easily Las Cruces handled Clovis. In comparison, Las Cruces doesn’t have a guy on a college team’s radar, head coach William Benjamin said.
“We ain’t got nobody headed to the once-was Big East,” he said. “We got good ballplayers, though. You don’t have to have an all-star player to be successful.”
Las Cruces never cracked even after Cass’ driving layup near the end of the third quarter gave the Wildcats a 41-40 lead.
Clovis’ momentum somewhat evaporated when Joseph Garza banked in a fadeaway jumper right before the buzzer. Las Cruces cobbled together the first seven points of the fourth period, while the Wildcats withered and hit only four shots over the final eight minutes.
Saturday’s title game pitted two teams that hadn’t won state championships in basketball in 30-plus years. Las Cruces hadn’t taken home a blue trophy since 1976, Clovis since 1979.
Three years apparently made a tangible difference.
Ford said team ball went out the window once Clovis got desperate.
“We tend to go to our own islands whenever we start losing,” he said.
Not even a large Clovis contingent could push the Wildcats over the top.
“The whole town was here,” Ford said. “You could feel it. There were a lot of people here to see us. Everyone was excited, and we just couldn’t pull through. We feel like we’ve let the town down since ’79. That’s a long time. Couldn’t get it done in ’08, couldn’t get it done now. Hopefully it comes some day.”