By Dave Wagner
ALBUQUERQUE — The team bus was about the only thing that didn’t finish the job on Wednesday for the Portales Rams on Wednesday
The Rams kept Cuba — and its boisterous fans — from getting any momentum, as they held high-scoring senior Michael Kilroy 15 points under his Class 3A-leading average and took control from the get-go in a 67-46 state quarterfinal victory at La Cueva High School.
PHS (18-8) advanced to a 10:15 a.m. semifinal game against Pojoaque at The Pit, while ending Cuba’s first state tournament appearance in 10 years. The Rams faced Pojoaque in the state semifinals during their last appearance in the state tournament, when they won it all in 2001.
Junior guard Daniel Aranda led five Rams in double figures with 15 points as Portales shot 57 percent from the field and weathered Cuba’s intense comeback attempt in the second half.
Rams coach Mark Gallegos said getting an early lead was crucial to avoiding a nerve-racking finish.
“When Cuba brings 1,400 people, you have to take the crowd out of it,” Gallegos said. “I knew they were going to make a run; we just had to weather the storm.”
The Rams turned the ball over 14 times in the second half after just four in the first. Cuba, coming in as the seventh seed despite a 23-3 record, turned the game into a bit of a marathon in the second half but was never able to cut its 35-17 halftime deficit to less than 12.
“I was as nervous as I’ve ever been,” said said PHS senior Bo Gabriel, who went 6-for-9 from the field and scored 14 points despite fouling out late in the third quarter. “I finally started making some layups — I’ve been waiting all season to do that.”
Senior Chris Carter posted a double-double for Portales with 13 points — including nine in the opening stanza when the Rams bolted to an 18-10 lead — and 11 rebounds. Senior Chris Kirchner finished with 12 points, and junior guard Chris Adkins added 10 points and six boards off the bench.
“We came out quick and never gave their crowd a chance to get into it,” Gabriel said. “We didn’t think they could beat us if we played the way we know how.
“We came out focused and ready to play.”
Kirchner, who was slowed earlier in the week by a touch of flu, and his teammates made life miserable for the 6-foot-3 Kilroy, who managed only two field goals and seven points — he came in averaging 22.2 — before fouling out near the end.
“What can you say about a kid like Chris Kirchner?” Gallegos said. “He hasn’t practiced all week.”
Gallegos added that Carter (flu) and senior Jack Hale (ankle) were also slowed a bit this week.
In addition, the Rams’ team bus broke down about nine miles outside of town on Wednesday morning, and Gallegos said parents helped bring the team the rest of the way.
“It might have been a good thing,” he mused, “because it may have kept our minds off the game.”
Cuba, paced by 17 points from junior post Micheal Hoodless and 15 from senior guard Nolan Sanchez, shot just 30 percent for the game on 15-of-50, and also had a poor night from the line with 15-of-33.
Kilroy missed a 3-pointer and drew two fouls in the first 71 seconds, and Portales opened a 5-0 lead when Carter — coming off a 1-for-16 game in Saturday’s District 4-3A final against Lovington — buried a 3-pointer from the top of the key. Kilroy’s only field goal of the first half was a tough runner as time was running out in the opening quarter.
“That’s a disappointment when you get two quick fouls like that, but we’ve had to play through things like that before,” second-year Cuba coach Brad Lenaburg said. “I thought our second-half effort was outstanding. We played with great effort, and that’s all you can ask.
“(Portales is) a good ballclub; they defend well and they’re fundamentally sound. That had a lot to do with our bad shooting.”