Leanna Lewis faced two of the most pressure-packed free throws in her prep girls basketball career on Friday night.
That is, until the next two.
But Lewis, the junior forward for Santa Fe Indian School, had been preparing for this moment. So, when she stepped to the line with 41.2 seconds left, Lewis was ready for it. Lewis hit those two free throws and two more with 12.7 seconds left to help the Lady Braves advance to The Pit in Albuquerque after a 61-56 win over Socorro in the opening round of the Class 4A State Tournament in the Pueblo Pavilion.
SFIS, the sixth seed in the 16-team bracket, gets a rematch with No. 3 Moriarty, which it beat 53-38 on Feb. 9, at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Lewis credited the work her dad put in with her growing up, putting her in those imaginary pressure situations that most players dream of in their driveway, in the backyard or at the park. But here it was, in real life, with the Lady Braves holding a precarious 56-55 lead and having missed four of their last five attempts at the line.
“My dad, he sets me up in all these situations and tells me to put myself in that intense moment when I’m practicing,” Lewis said. “I’ve shot those free throws a thousand times before. I could feel it all on me, and all I had to do was take a step back, take a deep breath and get into my rhythm that I know.”
And perfect practice led to perfect shots, as she hit nothing but net on both of them to extend the lead to three. The 11th-seeded Lady Warriors, though, had one last chance to put a scare into SFIS (25-4) and its faithful when Zoe Esquivel pulled up for a 3-pointer from the right wing. It hit the back iron and the Lady Braves grabbed the rebound.
Socorro (22-8) fouled sophomore guard Hunter Garcia with 25.1 seconds left, giving her a chance to redeem a pair of misses she had with 1:13 left. Instead, the 72 percent shooter missed them both.
“Usually, I’m hard on myself when I miss free throws like that,” Garcia said. “But I know I have a team that has my back and they stepped up, too.”
After Socorro missed another 3, Lewis iced the game with another pair of makes for 60-56. These, though, weren’t nearly as intense as the first two tries.
“The first two took the pressure off of me,” Lewis said. “The second two free throws, I got into my rhythm. I was confident.”
The last couple of minutes made up for a frustrating first half for Lewis, who sat on the bench with three fouls. It almost didn’t seem to matter then, as the Lady Braves rode the hot hands of Garcia and fellow guard Frankie Chavez to build a 31-17 lead when Chavez hit a pair of free throws with 1:48 to go. The two combined for 18 points by the break.
The seeds for a Socorro comeback, though, were planted in the final minute of the first half. A Desyha Townsend 3 and an Ashlyn Aguilar layup cut the lead to 31-22 at the half. The Lady Warriors then went to a full-court press and a half-court trap to start the second half, and the results were four SFIS turnovers in its first five possessions and 16 turnovers after the break.
Two Socorro steals turned into two layups, and the lead was down to 31-26 just 34 seconds into the third.
“I knew they were going to make a run,” Lady Braves head coach Christie Abeyta said. “We knew we were going to get into a situation where we were going to have to step up to the challenge and defend, whatever that meant. Whether it was to defend against their offense or us to defend the lead, I knew there was going to be that situation.”
Garcia did her part to answer the call on the offensive end. Her three-point play at 5:47 of the third gave SFIS a 36-38 lead, and she scored nine points in the quarter. She had a scoop layup that was a part of a closing 10-3 spurt that helped push the lead to 50-41 after three.
“I feel like if you score, it sparks up the team,” said Garcia who had a team high 19 points. “It gives us more confidence to score and actually make it to where we have that mentality of, ‘Oh, she made one, so I need to make one.’ ”
And the Lady Warriors put that trading baskets pressure on the Lady Braves. Socorro finally broke through with its own 10-3 run late in the game as SFIS missed seven straight shots and had a pair of turnovers during that dry spell. When Esquivel hit two free throws with 1:29 to go, it cut the lead to 56-55.
The difference was that Lewis was ready for the moment of a lifetime.
She already had played it out thousands of times.