By Eric Butler
RIO RANCHO — The city of Clovis isn’t dramatically different in elevation than Rio Rancho. But altitude seemed to be a major factor on Thursday.
Clovis (6-0) stayed undefeated, but only after fending off a late Los Alamos challenge en route to a 42-38 win in the first round of the Mel Otero Invitational girls basketball tournament.
“The kids were saying they couldn’t get their breath and you wouldn’t think that elevation would matter,” Clovis coach Miles Watters said. “But, for some reason, we were really sucking air.”
Opening a 24-8 bulge midway through the second quarter, the Lady Wildcats seemed destined to cruise into the second round of the eight-team tournament.
But, bit by bit, Los Alamos (2-3) chipped away until tying the game at 34-34 at the end of the third quarter.
With the score tied at 38, Clovis sophomore Brittany Blackmon scored twice inside — on passes from Tori Quintana and Roxanne Luera — in the last minute-and-a-half as the Lady Wildcats survived the upset by the Class 4A Hilltoppers.
Through the last period, the Wildcats players appeared tired — part of the reason why Watters pulled his guards away from the Los Alamos zone early in the quarter in an attempt to sit on a 38-34 advantage.
The tactic didn’t work, however, as two Lady Wildcats turnovers resulted in four points by the Hilltoppers. A layup by Los Alamos’ Gimmy Morris with 3:12 left that retied the game forced Clovis back into attacking the Hilltoppers’ defense again.
“We were a little fatigued, plus we got a little rest right there. We were trying to force them into a man defense,” said Watters on pulling the ball out. “But, you know, (the tactic) won the game for us the other night against Portales. So, you’ve got to know how to milk the clock and we’ve got to be smart enough to do that.”
Clovis, which will play host Rio Rancho in the semifinals at 7 tonight, was led by 11 points from Monique Walker and 10 by sophomore Aimee Hilburn.
Blackmon, the only Lady Wildcat to score in the last six minutes of the game, finished with nine.
Janna Nichols paced Los Alamos with 10 points.
“I think Clovis is a great basketball team. What I think it boiled down to is that they’re younger than our kids and they got a little rattled by the situation,” Los Alamos coach Gerry Washburn said. “I think they expected an easier ballgame. And when you get up by 16 and, all of a sudden, they’re tied back up with you, sometimes it’s hard to be energetic.”
The Lady Wildcats had 23 turnovers — a statistic Watters said would have to improve against Rio Rancho in the next round.
Mel Otero Invitational
At Rio Rancho
Rio Rancho 63, Pojoaque 23
Clovis 42, Los Alamos 38
Portales 63, Del Norte 47
Dallas J.F. Kimble 54, Los Lunas 43
Pojoaque vs. Los Alamos, 1 p.m.
Del Norte vs. Los Lunas, 3 p.m.
Portales vs. Dallas J.F. Kimble, 5 p.m.
Rio Rancho vs. Clovis, 7 p.m.
7th place, 1 p.m.
5th place, 3 p.m.
3rd place, 5 p.m.
Championship, 7 p.m.