Lobos Survive San Diego State's Late Push, Advance to Semis
By W.G. Ramirez
Special to TheMW.com
LAS VEGAS - New Mexico junior guard Bryce Owens goes through the same routine every time she steps to the free throw line: stop, put the ball on her hip, take a deep breath and picture it going in the basket.
Tuesday night in the 2015 Mountain West Women's Championship quarterfinal, Owens' charity-stripe ritual worked to perfection, as she sank two free throws with 42.4 seconds left to give second-seeded New Mexico (19-11) a 57-56 lead over No. 7 San Diego State (12-19).
San Diego State then missed three shots over those final 42 seconds to seal the win for the Lobos, who will face the winner of the Wyoming-Fresno State game, in Wednesday's 8:30 p.m. semifinal.
"I didn't put too much pressure on myself, I knew that if I could make these it'd be a great thing for us and we'd just have to hold them ‘til the buzzer sounds," Owens said. "I think just going up there relaxed and calm was the best thing for me."
After Owens' game-winning free throws, San Diego State's McKynzie Fort missed a jumper, but the Aztecs maintained possession when the rebound bounced off two New Mexico players. Ariell Bostick's 3-pointer with two seconds left was off the mark and Erimma Amarikwa's lay-up at the buzzer wouldn't fall.
"This is what tournament time is all about," New Mexico coach Yvonne Sanchez said. "Our fans were terrific. I give them a lot of credit for creating an atmosphere like The Pit (in Albuquerque). We were fortunate. We were fortunate to come away with that."
The Lobos were led by Anteisha Brown's 17 points, while Brea Mitchell added 11 of the team's 13 bench points, tying a career-high for points scored.
San Diego State's Ahjalee Harvey led the team with 16 points, while Amarikwa recorded her sixth double-double of the season with 11 points and 10 rebounds.
Both teams started on an aggressive pace, as the lead changed 10 times in the first 12 minutes of the game.
Trailing 16-14, Brown scored six points to spark the Lobos during an 18-7 run to take a 32-23 lead with 2:09 left in the half. The Aztecs responded with a 7-0 run before New Mexico took a 35-32 lead into the break.
"They got a lot of drives to the basket, more than what we wanted, in the first half," Brown said. "We had to contain the drives. They were getting a lot of points in the paint. Most of them were layups.
"Whenever we tried to kind of slow them down a little bit on that, it kind of worked in our favor. Other than that, we had to execute our end, rebound, run the floor, push it if they were getting a little tired and fatigued, because they have (played) one game over us. You know, just do what we can."
Nevertheless, the Aztecs appeared determined to get back into the game, opening the second half by scoring the first seven points and using an 11-4 run to take a 43-39 lead. But the Lobos' stringent defense allowed them to hold San Diego State scoreless for a 5-1/2-minute span, while going on a 9-0 run to take a 48-43 lead with 9:43 left in the contest.
"They made a concerted effort to come out fast (in the second half)," San Diego State coach Stacie Terry said. "We held them to 22 points in the second half, eliminated those transition points (and) that gave us a chance to cut into those leads and eventually gave us a chance to win. I think the key was really the offensive rebounding. They did a great job on the glass in the second half, gave themselves second and third opportunities to score, which put a lot of pressure on our defense."
Terry's squad refused to let the Lobos pull away, however, and diffused their run when Amarikwa scored six consecutive points to tie the game at 51-apiece with 4:56 remaining.
"We know better than to overlook anybody," said Sanchez, whose Lobos held a 12-1 advantage with second-chance points. "The first game of the tournament, this was our first game, is always a tough one. When you see as much basketball as we've seen, you don't ever overlook anybody. You just have to stay focused (and) play. You're going to have games like this. You just have to be ready for them."
Brown's lay-up put the Lobos ahead by two, and after Amarikwa hit one of two free throws, Khadijah Shumpert's lay-up with 3:33 left gave New Mexico a three-point lead, 55-52. San Diego State scored the next four points to take a 56-55 lead with two minutes left in the game. Owens' free throws a little more than a minute later provided the game's final margin.
"We grew up a little bit; I grew up a little bit," said Sanchez, whose Lobos were picked to finish ninth in the preseason, and opened their campaign 1-7. "It's a fun and a very, very special group. I told them that the last timeout, there were 14 seconds left, 14.3, I said: 'You guys have won games like this all year long. You can't expect anything less. Get out there with confidence, scramble around, do what you need to do, it will go your way.'"
The Lobos came into the postseason with their highest seed since 2005, when they entered as a No. 1 seed and won the title. And with top-seeded Colorado State losing earlier in the day, the Lobos enter the semifinals as the highest seed remaining in the MW Championship.
Willie Ramirez is a Las Vegas-based freelance reporter and Southern Nevada correspondent for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter: @AP_WG