By Kevin Wilson
Freedom New Mexico
ALBUQUERQUE — Tara Johnson shook off some bad playoff memories Tuesday. She and her Portales teammates gave some new ones to West Las Vegas.
Johnson, playing her first game at The Pit in two years, had a triumphant return with 12 points and six rebounds as second-seeded Portales dominated the Lady Dons 52-30 in Tuesday’s Class 3A quarterfinal.
Portales (20-10) trailed for only 11 seconds all day, and led by as much as 24 to earn a trip to Thursday’s 8 a.m. semifinals against Las Vegas Robertson, also at The Pit.
“It feels so good,” said Johnson, who suffered a knee injury in last year’s first-round game at Portales — also a win against West Las Vegas — and was helpless as her shorthanded teammates were knocked out by Santa Fe Indian School to break Portales’ seven-year streak of 3A title game appearances. “I was waiting a whole year to come back out here.”
Johnson had a lot of help, as Jenna Wagner scored 14 points and guard Dallas Russell scored all 11 of her points in the second half to go along with seven rebounds.
But it was what Portales did on defense that made the difference, holding West Las Vegas (21-11) to 10-of-42 shooting from the field.
“I was really pleased with our defensive intensity,” Portales coach Clay Stout said. “For the most part, we limited them to one shot. They’re a hard team to guard, and our girls dug in and got stops.”
The Lady Dons made a game of it in the last four minutes before halftime, as they changed their defensive approach to a tight man-to-man defense and refused to double — daring Portales’ players to go one-on-one. The Rams, who Stout has described before as unselfish to a fault at times, continued to move the ball on the perimeter and West Las Vegas caused enough turnovers for a 6-1 run late in the half.
The plan had limited success as Portales became more aggressive driving in the second half and ended the game with a 37-20 free throw advantage.
“As aggressive as they were on defense,” Stout said, “we felt that we could either get fouled or get an easy basket.”
The aggression didn’t carry over to the offensive side, as West Las Vegas never found an offensive rhythm and went 2-of-13 from 3-point range.
“We didn’t go to the basket as aggressive as we usually do,” forward Kristen Encinias said. “We were like robots out there.”
Miranda Martinez scored 15 to lead the Dons, who lose only two seniors from what coach Jose Medina hopes will be a learning experience.
“If it hurts us, and we feel it inside, we’re going to learn from it,” Medina said “We don’t want that feeling again. We want that feeling Portales had, exuberant and getting ready for the next round.”
That’s what Johnson and Portales are doing, with thoughts of possibly starting a new title game streak.
“We’re truly fortunate we got Tara back,” Stout said, “and we’ve got a group of girls that love each other and care about each other and play well together.”