#MWMadness: Aztecs Corral Cowgirls in Fourth Quarter, Pull Away for Victory

 

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By W.G. Ramirez
Special to TheMW.com

 

LAS VEGAS - Three days after losing their regular-season finale in Las Vegas, San Diego State fared much better in the opening round of the 2016 Mountain West Women's Championships on Monday.

The Aztecs used a dominating first half, survived Wyoming's furious rally in the third quarter and then cruised in the final period for a 62-44 victory to advance to Tuesday's quarterfinals, where they will face No. 1 seed Colorado State at Noon in the Thomas and Mack Center.

McKynzie Fort scored 17 points, hitting 7 of 11 from the field, while Deidra Smith had 13 points and seven rebounds to lead San Diego State, which is now 4-1 against Wyoming in the Mountain West Tournament.

"We were lucky enough to beat a really good Wyoming team today, who gave us everything they possibly could," said San Diego State coach Stacie Terry, whose Aztecs lost at UNLV on Friday. "Fortunately it's such a quick trip we were able to get back. I don't think (the up and back trip) bothered us. These kids were so ready for this tournament, we could have been here two weeks, and they would have been ready for tonight."

It appeared San Diego State was going to enjoy a rather easy opening-round contest, as it jumped ahead of the Cowgirls by 11 early in the second quarter. The Aztecs' stingy defense had five steals and caused nine Wyoming turnovers in the first half.

But trailing by eight midway through the third period, Wyoming's Marquelle Dent ignited the Cowgirls with a short jumper to start a 12-6 run, slicing San Diego State's lead to 41-39.

"Our coach told us they were going to make a run," Smith said. "It's the Mountain West Tournament, so we had to buckle down and focus on our defensive principles."

Which is exactly what the Aztecs did.

Clinging to a two-point lead, Smith used some nifty footwork under the basket and spun to her left for an easy lay-in to stop the bleeding and push the Aztecs lead back to four. The Cowgirls missed their last four shot attempts of the quarter, while Fort added a layup to give Wyoming its 45-39 lead heading into the final period.

The Aztecs held Wyoming without a field goal over a span of 11:15 - from the third quarter to the fourth quarter - and it was a layup by Kylie Herd with a little more than two minutes left in the game that put an exclamation point on the win, as the Aztecs capped a 21-1 run to take a 62-40 lead.

San Diego State swept the regular-season series with the Cowgirls, as the Aztecs opened conference play with an 84-77 win in Laramie and later won 53-40 at home. When facing teams they swept during the regular season, the Aztecs have now won six straight in the Mountain West Championships.

"We talked about it briefly before we left San Diego, that it's hard to beat a team (three times). It was going to be challenging, and take an extreme amount of effort, energy and focus to do that on the road," Terry said. “This is a very good team. It was close in Wyoming when we played there. And close again ... in San Diego. It was a close game going into that fourth quarter (tonight), and I thought our young ladies responded well to the numerous runs that they made.

"I knew with the leaders they had and the coaching staff that they had that they were going to make this a great game. They are led by a very good player, Marquelle Dent, who has done wonderful things for this league."

And as the Aztecs will continue in the tournament, the loss for the Cowgirls brought an end to a brilliant career by Dent, who earlier in the day was named to the league's all-conference and all-defensive teams for a second consecutive season. Dent led the Cowgirls with 13 points and eight assists, while Liv Roberts added 12 points and nine rebounds.

"Marquelle has really had to shoulder a great deal on this team, being the only senior, the only returning player that played. Every night she had to step up and come through for us to stay competitive," Wyoming coach Joe Legerski said. "She's at the top of everybody's scouting report. She has a bright future ahead of her. There's so much basketball for Marquelle still to play."

Said Dent: "I think it's been a great four years for me. I loved playing for Coach Joe. And this team is a really young team. I told them enjoy the moment because it goes by really fast. Every day I get to come out and put on my Wyoming jersey, and that is one of the greatest feelings. I just enjoy playing basketball, and I love the game. So hopefully I can play for a little bit longer."

 

Willie Ramirez is a Las Vegas-based freelance reporter and Southern Nevada correspondent for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter: @WillieGRamirez