By Dave Wagner: Freedom Newspapers
ALBUQUERQUE — The butterflies in Tara Johnson’s stomach belied her confident approach.
Johnson made two free throws with 15.9 seconds remaining, leading Portales into the girls Class 3A championship game for the seventh straight year as the Rams beat St. Michael’s 32-31 in the semifinals Thursday.
“I was so nervous. My legs were shaking,” she said. “But I knew I was going to make them.”
The top-seeded Lady Rams (20-8) meet second-seeded Hope Christian, a 52-40 winner on Wednesday over Pojoaque, in today’s 8 p.m. title clash.
Johnson sealed the win by coming up with a steal and running out the final couple of seconds.
St. Mike’s (13-17) was trying to pull a third consecutive upset of a top-five seed in the state playoffs, having already ousted No. 5 Socorro and No. 4 Santa Fe Indian.
The Horsemen trailed 29-22 with five minutes remaining but rallied with a 7-1 run, fueled by Romero’s switch to a man-to-man defense and capped by a 3-pointer by Erica Martinez with 1:19 to go.
“We have no regrets; it was a 12 seed versus a 1,” St. Michael’s coach Martin Romero said. “It was our kind of ballgame.”
Junior post Melissa Peterson gave St. Mike’s a one-point lead on a putback with 27 seconds left, but she fouled out on Portales’ trip to send Johnson to the line.
“I thought I had position, but I’m not a ref,” said Peterson, who finished with 10 points and seven rebounds. “I thought I had my feet set.
“I never like being on the bench. Fifteen seconds is a lot of time, and I had a lot of faith that we could still pull through.”
PHS coach Brenda Gomez said her team, which has outscored its first two foes at The Pit 73-65, will have to play better if it hopes to win it for the fifth time in seven years.
“Defensively, I felt like we did a good job,” she said. “I felt like we were blocking out on the boards. But we’ve got to play better tomorrow.”
Senior Briana Hernandez led Portales with seven points. The Lady Rams also got a big lift off the bench from junior Vicki Huber, who contributed six points and seven rebounds.
“I think I’ve stepped up here at state,” Huber said. “All of us have stepped up. We wanted to pick it up and be in the finals.”