Clovis High senior Aimee Hilburn picks up instructions from coach Miles Watters during a timeout in Thursday’s Class 5A girls state semifinal game against Gallup at The Pit in Albuquerque. (CNJ staff photo: Rick White)
ALBUQUERQUE — Clovis’ girls ran into a mountain-size roadblock in their bid to repeat as state champions.
Her name is Valerie Kast, a 6-foot-6 wide-body from Gallup, by way of Estonia.
Using her strength to get position deep in the post and a feathery touch belying her size, Kast poured in 22 points and added eight rebounds as the fifth-seeded Bengals stunned the No. 1 Lady Wildcats 44-40 in a Class 5A state semifinal contest Thursday at The Pit.
The Bengals (25-5) will meet second-seeded Mayfield (24-4) in Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. championship game. The Lady Trojans reached the title game for the third consecutive year — they’ve split against Clovis in the last two finals — with a 55-53 victory over third-seeded Sandia.
The University of New Mexico signee was also a force at the defensive end, swatting away several Clovis shots in the paint and changing at least a half-dozen others.
“She was a huge factor at both ends,” Clovis coach Miles Watters said. “She’s hard to double on because they shoot the ball so well.”
Aimee Hilburn led Clovis (27-3) with 13 points and Brittany Blackmon added 12, but both had trouble getting off shots against the towering Kast.
“The bottom line is we didn’t shoot the ball well and we had some people come up empty,” Watters said. “I thought we got some good looks. We just did make them.
“I think if we hit a few shots, it would have opened things up.”
Clovis made 5-of-22 field goal attempts in the second half, and shot 33 percent for the game.
In contrast, Gallup was 8-of-13 in the second half, and finished at 55 percent for the contest.
Kast converted a pair of short shots and added two free throws and Cherelle Rosales drained a 3-pointer in a 15-1 run as Gallup turned a five-point halftime deficit into a 31-24 lead.
“In the third quarter, we did a good job of getting the ball into Valerie,” said veteran Gallup coach Johnny Lemasney. “And we hit a 3-pointer — the first one in two weeks — and that kind of loosened (the Lady Cats) up.”
Clovis, which has gone 84-7 the last three years, made a final run at the Bengals with a 3-pointer by Hilburn and a layup by sophomore Ebony Bunton on a feed from Blackmon. That knotted the score at 35 with about three minutes left in the game.
Following a backcourt turnover by the Bengals, Clovis had a chance to take back the lead but misfired on two shots.
Gallup responded to the reprieve with a Kast hoop, then went to its patented spread offense and forced the suddenly cold Lady Cats to foul.
The Bengals converted both ends of three straight 1-and-1s down the stretch to seal the win and send their huge cheering section into a frenzy.
The loss brought to an end the prep career of five Clovis seniors, including Hilburn, Blackmon and Tori Quintana.
Watters said they are a special group.
“They just love the game,” Watters said. “Basketball’s been so much a part of their lives.
“It really hurts how it hurts them.”