By Tom A. Ruiz
Special to RDR Sports
The Gateway Lady Warriors were attempting to make history by trying to knock off the defending district and state champion, the Tatum Lady Coyotes, Friday night. After all, Gateway had won two of the previous three meetings between them this season.
Gateway, 21-4, beat Tatum in Dora in a playoff game Monday to win the top seed in the district tournament.
But on Friday night, Tatum, 17-9, used its experience in big games like this one and won the district tournament, 32-29.
“It was a heck of a game and we had to fight through an awful first-half performance,” said Tatum coach Greg Slover. Slover was a superintendent at a Colorado school and returned to Tatum this past December after the Lady Coyotes’ head coach developed health issues and could not return.
Support Local Journalism
Subscribe to the Roswell Daily Record today.
Support Local Journalism
Slover had coached the Lady Coyotes from 2013-17. “The girls responded to me as if I had never left,” said Slover. Tatum finished 13-4 in the second half and now are the district champions again.
However, the Gateway girls were confident they could take the district title away from them. They had thoroughly dominated Tatum in the playoff game on Monday and held home court advantage for the title game.
“We knew we could beat them, we proved we could beat them,” said Gateway coach Holly Tipton. In the third quarter, the Lady Warriors held the game’s biggest lead at 23-17 when Sierra Fresquez hit a fall-away jumper with 4:20 to go.
But then Gateway fell in a funk. On their next eight possessions, they misfired on two shots and turned the ball over six times, including four consecutive miscues, to end the third period.
“I kept telling them to calm down, they were playing so tight out there,” said Tipton. “Maybe we wanted to win this thing so bad that we got away from our game.”
Tatum though is used to being in crunch time moments. Kheyenne Coombes, their sophomore post used her big frame for a layup to give Tatum a 24-23 lead heading into the fourth period.
“She’s a money player,” said Slover. The fourth quarter turned into a dog fight — there were five lead changes. Gateway took its final lead when freshman MJ Stephens converted a layup on a steal for a 29-28 lead with 3:50 to go in the game.
“Even after they (Gateway) scored to retake the lead, I could see in our girls’ body language that they wanted this game, said Slover.
Again, it was Coombes who wanted the ball and she bullied her way into the paint for a layup to make the winning basket, 30-29 with 3:38 to go in the fourth quarter.
Both teams played great defense in the final three-plus minutes. Tatum forced Gateway into four turnovers while Gateway forced Tatum into four of five turnovers in the stretch run.
“They (Gateway) played with a champion’s heart,” said Slover. However, the Lady Coyotes are still the champions.
“I was really proud of our girls and what they have accomplished this season,” Tipton said. “I told them that in the locker room afterward. I told them to keep their chins up, but I also reminded them that we have a new season ahead of us.”
Tipton is referring to the state playoffs which begin next Friday. The New Mexico Activities Association playoffs committee will unveil their playoff brackets on Sunday, and Gateway hopes to receive a top-five seed, which will give them a first-round home playoff game.
“We beat the defending district champion (Tatum) at our place, so that’s one point in our favor,” said Tipton, and the Lady Warriors did win 21 games this season.
“Don’t be surprised if we meet again in the state tournament,” Slover said.
If they do it will be the rubber match game. Both are 2-2 against each other this season.
The Lady Warriors play again on Friday, after the playoff brackets are revealed.