By Louie St. George III
The Daily Times
ALBUQUERQUE - The slogan is simple:
One team, one dream.
Aztec’s girls basketball team parlayed that unity — and one final dazzling performance from superstar Patricia Malouff — into a Class 4A state championship Friday night at The Pit, where the Lady Tigers overcame a woeful start to trump Kirtland Central 52-46 in front of a near-capacity crowd that witnessed a thrilling final.
“Our whole entire lives growing up, we always said one year we’re going to win a state championship,” an emotional Malouff said. “(We’ve had) the one team, one dream thing our whole entire lives and we did it, and I think the girls did a great job of accomplishing it.”
Malouff capped a brilliant four-year prep career by scoring a game-high 23 points. The senior, who has battled a persistent flu in recent weeks, threw up multiple times late in the third quarter. Unhindered, Malouff was a perfect 4-for-4 from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter as the Tigers (25-5) made a habit of getting to the stripe.
Charity Gillespie shot 9-of-12 from the line, Malouff was 11-for-12 and Aztec finished 30-for-38 a night after free throws nearly cost the Tigers a spot in the championship game.
“I don’t ever worry when we go to the line. It's something that I haven’t worried about all year,” AHS coach Chelsea Shock said of her team’s ability to make free throws.
Kirtland Central (25-6), which was aiming for the 18th state championship in school history, shot 13-of-16 from the line. Still, the disparity in attempts was too much to overcome.
“We just couldn't keep ‘em off the line,” said KC coach Ron Mayberry, who guided the Broncos to the title tilt in his first season at the helm. “They did a great job of getting to the line and making their free throws.”
Mayberry’s team looked primed to deny the Tigers their first title with a dominating opening quarter. After Malouff scored the game's first bucket, the Broncos ripped off 14 unanswered points to grab a commanding lead and ignite the Kirtland faithful. Lateesha Nez concluded the run by burying a 3-pointer from the wing, and KC ended the period leading 16-6.
Despite the shaky start, the veteran Tigers never lost their poise. Having split four regular-season contests with the Broncos, Aztec, with 24 minutes of basketball still to play, never panicked.
“I think they kind of got their jitters out after the first half,” Shock said of her team, which lost to St. Pius in last year’s state championship game. “The girls never really panicked, they just keep attacking.”
“Attack, attack, attack,” she said of the mood surrounding the Tigers after falling behind by 12 points. “You have to believe in yourself and your team. I truly believe that.”
The comeback win, apropos for a group Malouff affectionately calls the “comeback kids,” came to life in the third quarter. Trailing 32-24 at the break, the Tigers clicked early in the second half. Rayla Doty’s five-foot jumper two minutes into the third cut the lead to 6, 36-30. A Malouff layup three minutes later made it 36-35 and sent Mayberry scrambling for a timeout. Mikala Brooks, a reserve, knocked down a pair of free throws with 25 seconds to play in the period to give the Tigers a 39-38 advantage — their first lead since the 6:37 mark of the opening quarter.
April Christie, a junior guard who scored seven points Friday, said KC’s youth — Chaela Rodgers was the lone senior to play against Aztec — was evident when the game got close.
“We kind of hoped that it wouldn’t catch up with us, but it did,” said Christie, who along with Ali Hathaway, played on the Broncos’ 2005 state championship team. Christie then added that early in the game, Kirtland played much more relaxed, oblivious to the scoreboard.
The Tigers controlled the ball for the first 90 seconds of the fourth quarter. A Gillespie basket more than two minutes into the period pushed Aztec’s lead to 41-38. Christie made two free throws to move the Broncos in front 45-43 with 2:19 remaining. But seconds later, Gillespie made 1-of-2 from the free-throw line, and Kirtland turned the ball over on its ensuing possession.
A pair of Malouff free throws gave the Tigers a 46-45 edge, and Aztec never trailed again.
For the Tigers, the win ends an ultra-successful journey for the team’s seniors, who end their high school careers by adding a state banner to a pair of District 1-4A championships.
“It’s hard to believe that we’re not going to be here next year, but it’s great to end on a win,” Gillespie said.
“Kirtland’s always an exceptional team,” Malouff concluded. “They have a great program, a great coach. And we have a great coach. She’s been with us for four years, all of our four years, and it was a great feeling to beat Kirtland.”
Dayon Hall-Jones led the Broncos with 15 points — 12 in the first half — and Nez added eight. Both, along with almost all their teammates, will be back next year, when Kirtland will have an excellent opportunity to make a repeat showing in the championship game.
“Hopefully we’ll be back because I want to win next year,” Nez said.