The Kirtland Central Lady Broncos have earned a chance to defend their 4A state championship.
Kirtland Central defeated Piedra Vista 35-32 on Tuesday night at the Jerry A. Conner Fieldhouse to move to 5-0 in District 1-4A, clinching the regular season district title in the process by handing PV its second district loss.
After a slow start to the regular season, the Lady Broncos knew their only route back to the state tournament was with a district title.
"The girls have worked hard and never quit. We started the season 4-14 or something like that, and the girls could have rolled over and died, but they didn't," said Kirtland Central head coach Kevin Holman. "They are great young ladies to coach and they deserve this. They are Lady Broncos and they have a lot of heart and desire."
Kirtland Central (9-14, 5-0 District 1-4A) led the entire game, but PV (12-13, 3-2) made it close the entire second half.
After trailing 12-5 after the first quarter, PV cut Kirtland's lead to 25-22 at halftime.
Both teams struggled offensively in the second half, scoring just 10 points each in the final 16 minutes.
Down the stretch, the game grew increasingly physical with both head coaches erupting off the bench to voice complaints to the officials.
One call in particular baffled PV head coach Mike Christie.
A jump ball was called while three Kirtland Central players reached in the air for the ball that was controlled by PV senior Kaleigh Graham. Grahahm maintained possession, and no Kirtland player was touching the ball when the whistle blew for a jump ball.
"Calling jump balls with only one person holding the ball? I don't get it," Christie said. "Certain officials only show up to certain big games. There are refs you don't see the whole year and then all of a sudden it is considered a big game and they get the big game. Then all of a sudden the game is called differently.
"We were fouled over and over with no calls, but I guess that is how they call it. I promise the next time we take the court on Friday we will bring the brand of ball the refs are going to call. I promise the next time they are going to have to make the calls."
Despite the questionable calls, Christie didn't want to take anything away from Kirtland winning the game.
"Kirtland flat took it from us. Holman had a good strategy and their penetration killed us. Our one-on-one defense was poor," Christie said. "We have to play better on the ball defense. We are getting better, but we have too many let downs."
The game remained 33-32 in favor of Kirtland the final minute and a half of the game before Keeshawna Ockerman hit two free-throw attempts with six seconds left to give the Lady Broncos a 35-32 lead.
After struggling to score in the second half, Ockerman still wasn't phased by the pressure-filled moment.
"I just cleared my head and didn't think about it at all," Ockerman said. "It was exciting to make the shots. I was full of energy and I wanted to keep going."
Taylor Billey led the Lady Broncos with 10 points while Ockerman finished with six.
Kirtland Central may have entered the District 1-4A season 4-15, but the team has won five consecutive games since Holman informed his players he had been diagnosed with cancer for the third time.
"That really pushed us to want to step it up for him and do our best," Ockerman said. "At the beginning of the season, we didn't have much confidence, but we finally started clicking as a team and our confidence has been building. Now we trust each other."
PV was led Tuesday night by Kaleigh Graham's 11 points. She also had eight rebounds and four blocks.
Kelseigh Simpson scored 10 points for PV, all in the first half. Simpson saw three 3-point attempts rim out in the final minute and a half of the game.
After the loss, Christie knows his team will have to win Friday against Farmington and reach the district tournament championship game next Friday at Kirtland Central.
"I think if we can get to the championship, we might still get into state as a 15 or 16 seed," Christie said. "Kirtland will be down in the rankings, too. We have to put it on our shoulders. If we want to get to state, we have to win the district title game. Last year, we were undefeated in district going into the district title game and Kirtland beat us. Now we have to turn the card on them. We aren't afraid to go into Kirtland's gym and play."