KIRTLAND — Winning district championships is simply business as usual for the Kirtland Central Lady Broncos.
The regular-season district champion Lady Broncos earned another District 1-4A tournament championship title Friday night at Bronco Arena in Kirtland, defeating Piedra Vista 45-29.
This year's title didn't come easy. At one point, the defending 4A state champion Lady Broncos were just 3-14.
"The girls got it because every day they came to practice and they never stopped. At one point, we were 3-14, but they never stopped," said Kirtland Central head coach Kevin Holman, who has coached the Lady Broncos to three district titles in his first three years coaching the team. "They believed in me and the coaches and they believed in each other. That is why we are here. That is why we are district champs."
It hasn't been easy for Holman, either, as he as continued to coach the team while undergoing treatment for cancer.
Friday night's game was close in the first quarter, but the Lady Broncos (12-15) gained separation in the second quarter, taking a 23-16 lead into the break.
Kirtland Central came out on a 9-2 run in the first six minutes and 22 seconds of the third quarter to push it's lead to double-digits where it remained the rest of the game.
The Lady Broncos outscored the Lady Panthers (14-14) 9-3 in the third quarter.
"Kirtland came out with a strong third quarter. We were held to what, three points in the third quarter? Kirtland played good defense, but we had shots and everything we wanted to do was there for us," said PV head coach Mike Christie. "It was a matter of patience and hitting shots, and we didn't do that."
The Lady Panthers were largely without the services of star center Kaleigh Graham, who spent a great deal of the second quarter doubled over near the trash can on the PV sideline.
Graham has battled the flu all week but played in Wednesday night's tournament semifinal game against Aztec as well as most of the second half Friday.
Seeing Graham struggle so much hurt the Lady Panthers' psyche, Christie said.
"I think that really hurt. In the locker room, she was consistently coughing. She couldn't stop. The girls were just watching her. It is pretty disturbing," Christie said. "We tried to fire the girls up and use Kaleigh as motivation, but it didn't work.
"She was out of school Monday and Tuesday with a 100-plus degree fever. I am sure she has a good fever now. She is tougher than nails, and she is our leader and has been all year long. Give her credit for trying to play."
The Lady Broncos held Graham to just four points and under 10 rebounds.
Coah Charley was the only Lady Panther in double figures, scoring 11 points.
Keeshawna Ockerman led the Lady Broncos with 14 points before fouling out with 2:33 to go in the game.
Shamika Benally added another nine points and Taylor Billey chipped in eight for Kirtland Central in the win.
The Lady Broncos once again struggle from the free-throw line, going just 5-of-14, but Benally stepped up in the fourth quarter and knocked down 5-of-8 when PV began to foul to extend the game.
Kirtland Central's defense was the key again Friday, as it has been during the team's stretch of seven wins in eight games dating back to Jan. 18.
"The girls had a great week of practice. We were ready for PV," Holman said. "It is hard to have a whole week off, but our girls came ready. We had help from some boys on our C-team who came down to work with us. I thought the defense was great. Whoever, we get seeded with next Friday in the first-round, they are going to have their hands full with our defense."
Holman credited some of his first-year varsity players who are seniors for filling key roles on the team and being true team players.
"We have seniors like Taylor Billey, Jennifer Hastings, Latricia Pinto, Lynelle Begay and Andrea Marris. Those girls could have rolled up and quit when we were 3-14," he said. "(Pinto) and (Hastings), girls like that, when I brought in two freshman to start, they could've stopped playing but they didn't. That is why they are district champs. They believe in themselves and their coaches. They are Lady Broncos, and they deserve it."
Despite the rocky start, Holman knew the team could win the district because of its work ethic in practice.
"I just thought the competition we played with the Santa Fe Indian's, Shiprock's, Clovis' and Gallup's and stuff like that, I knew if we could get to district we would have a great shot if they kept working," he said.
Holman isn't sure what seed his team will draw Sunday, but he said he has them at No. 11 in what he sent to the selection committee.
Kirtland Central will enter the state tournament trying to win state title No. 20.
"I put us down for a No. 11 seed the other day, but I don't know. We are 12-15," he said. "PV should get in also, I think. Hopefully both of us can win one more game next week and get down to Albuquerque."
Christie is unsure whether his team will have the résumé to be selected Sunday or not.
"I am hoping, but a 16-point loss in the district championship will make it tough," Christie said. "It is going to be close. We will see."
Christie knows regardless of Sunday's outcome that the Lady Panthers will have to get tougher as they move forward.
"As a coach, you hope to build them up and get them to a point where they start growing up as the season goes. I feel disappointed in myself that I am not seeing it on the court," he said. "Some things you can do. You can talk to them about motivation, but eventually they have to learn to play without fear and get that fire in their bellies."
Notes: Kirtland Central head coach Kevin Holman disagreed with comments made about San Juan County officiating in an article that ran in the March 1 edition of The Daily Times. "I think I am the longest coach going up here with 21 years, and I think the officials do a good job around here. They work their tails off for us," Holman said. "In all my years, I have never seen a game decided by officials. I know I get upset with them and coaches get upset, but that is our job. But for those guys to go out there and bust their tail for us and the kids — that is why they do it is for the kids — they do a great job." ... Kirtland Central honored Navajo Code Talker Wilfred Billey during halftime of Friday night's game. Billey is the grandfather of Kirtland Central senior point guard Taylor Billey.
John Livingston may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-564-4648. Follow him on Twitter @jlivi2.