RIO RANCHO — Shiprock's goal from the start of the season was to get to The Pit. On Wednesday night, it was mission accomplished.
The No. 4 Chieftains defeated No. 5 Portales 52-41 in the 3A state quarterfinals at the Santa Ana Star Center.
The Chieftain fans again came to support their squad, and junior Justin Begay thought their presence helped push Shiprock over the top late in the fourth quarter of a close game.
"The crowd was really getting into it, and that really helps us," Begay said. "We feed off their energy and we're able to play harder defense. We're able to shoot the ball better; we're able to pass the ball better and we're just able to play harder."
Shiprock closed the game on an 8-0 run to put away the Rams in a hotly contested game.
"We've been in tight ball games and have drills on how to handle the last two minutes," said Shiprock head coach Chester H. Atcitty Jr. "I tell the boys to take care of that ball. It's your lifeline to advance."
The Chieftains went into the halftime break trailing Portales 30-29 and were struggling with their jump shots against the Rams' 2-3 zone defense.
Shiprock made adjustments offensively, spreading the court, burning the clock and stretching out the Portales zone, opening up driving lanes to the basket.
"We've been an up-tempo team, but we can play that slow style. I think we showed we can," Atcitty said. "As you advance in these final rounds, it's difficult. These teams play defense. They get back. They make you work, and we got to be patient on offense. We want to be able to convert. We showed that we can hang in there and pull it out."
The Chieftains capitalized on their easier opportunities, making 10-of-19 from the field in the second half.
Defensively, Atcitty said he wanted the team to step up its man-to-man pressure in the second half.
"When we went back in at halftime, we said we have to go man. We have to go full-court man as much as possible," he said. "That's our bread and butter. We have other defenses, but they scouted us and knew what we were going to run. They showed that in the first half, so we had to resort to a different style of pressure."
The Shiprock coach's plan worked as the Chieftains forced 13 of the Rams 16 turnovers in the second half and held Portales to 11 points on 27 percent shooting in the second half.
Begay led Shiprock in scoring with 20 points on 7-of-14 shooting in the victory.
"Coach always tells me to get to the basket, because there's a high percentage when you get closer." Begay said.
The Shiprock junior thought the first-round match up against Ruidoso helped prepare the Chieftains for Portales' style of play.
"They like to play physical. They'll get right up on you and the refs will let you play," Begay said. "Playing Ruidoso really prepped us for that physical side of the game."
Patdric Toehe had eight points, nine rebounds and four steals for Shiprock.
"He's great," Begay said of Toehe. "He's that anchor for our defense and every team needs that. If we get beat, he's there to help us and he's a beast on the boards."
Kevin Aspaas scored nine points and had three steals in the Chieftain win.
Portales was lead by Emilio Baca's 11 points and eight rebounds.
Nathan Chavez hit three 3-pointers and scored nine points for the Rams, but the Chieftain defense held him without a point in the final two quarters.
The Chieftains dominated the offensive rebounds, getting 14 of their 31 rebounds on the offensive side.
"The difference in the ball game was their offensive boards," said Portales head coach Rickie McBroom said. "All year, when we limit people's offensive boards, we play really well. We just gave them too many second chances."
The Chieftains advance to the 3A semifinals to face No. 1 Hope Christian after the Huskies beat No. 9 Lovington 80-45 on Wednesday.
"They are a very great ball club," Atcitty said of the Huskies. "They can get after it and rebound. They're physical; they're quick. They can do a lot of things, but we're going to stick to our game plan and not get too rattled. Hopefully we can be right in there with them."
The Chieftains are ready for the Huskies and can't wait to get their chance at the No. 1 seed in The Pit.
"It's exciting," said Shiprock guard Deron Johnson. "It's exciting for me. It's exciting for our whole team to reach that goal."
Joshua Perry may be reached at email@example.com or 505-564-4577. Follow him on Twitter @jperrysuu.