Stevens: Flanagan's Lobos Want To Get Back To Where They Belong
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics  
Release:  10/19/2010
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics

Oct. 19, 2010

Lobo Women's Basketball
Nov. 9:
Western New Mexico at Lobos, 7 p.m. - The Pit
Nov. 12: Texas Tech at Lobos, 7 p.m. - The Pit
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By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com.

They are 16 players strong and although the thought of cracking the NCAA Sweet 16 isn't something this young Don Flanagan team shies away from, the main thought floating around in the renovated Pit is to simply crack open that NCAA door once again.

"Get back to where we belong," is how Lobo Junior Sara Halasz puts it. Said Flanagan: "Our expectations are always to get to the NCAA Tournament."

It's surely a testament to Flanagan's program that the Lobos can pour out 19 wins a year ago and not be particularly thrilled with where they ended - in the National Invitational Tournament.

The Lobos look at an NCAA berth as part of the birthright that comes with being Lobos and playing in The Pit in front of one of the top crowds in NCAA ball.

So, they shoot to get back to the NCAA dance in 2011. It won't be easy - and shooting will be a key.

The Lobos were picked in the Mountain West Conference preseason poll to finish sixth and that placement has something to with, well, a lot of things.

First, the conference is loaded and balanced with a lot of teams returning a whole lot of starters. Second, UNM no longer has All-MWC point guard Amy Beggin and the Lobos also lost 6-6 Valerie Kast, Eileen Weissmann and Georonika Jackson.

Second, Flanagan takes to the court leaning on a number of young players and looking at two major question marks - the point and the paint. Arguably, the two most important spots on the court.

The All-MWC First Team Beggin was UNM's do-everything out front and that loss obviously hurts: in points, in energy, in leadership. Flanagan is turning over the point to Amanda Best and there are a number of things that Best does better than Beggin.

One problem: the 6-foot senior hasn't done a lot of those things in crunch time at that position of heavy responsibility. Flanagan expects his talented senior to do well early and get better as she experiences some of that crunch-time pressure. For sure, opposing teams likely will throw some defensive pressure on Best and try to use that tactic to disrupt the UNM offense.

Flanagan, entering his 16th season at UNM, is not concerned. "Amanda is looking good," said UNM's all-time winningest women's basketball coach. "It's not a position she has played much, but it's a position she is pretty natural at. She can handle it. She can pass. She can drive.

"We won't have the ball in her hands as much as we did with Amy. We'll look for Amanda to pass and cut and become part of the offense. She'll have to make some adjustments on defense because she'll likely be guarding the quickest player on the floor. We are going to need her to make free throws, too."

Flanagan, who has posted 14 consecutive winning seasons as a Lobo, lists two of his major concerns this season as depth at the point and inside scoring. It's key that Best stays healthy and stays out of foul trouble.

With sparkplug Nikki Nelson out for the season with a knee injury, Best's backup is Brianna Taylor, a 5-foot-5 freshman. She has a lot of raw talent, but she has a lot to learn about D-I basketball.

"Brianna is good defensively and I'm not worried about that," said Flanagan. "But it's not an easy process for any freshman to come in and get productive playing time and it's probably even more difficult to get it at the point. There is a lot of responsibility that comes with that position."

The Lobos ran to a 19-13 mark last season, which included a 9-7 MWC mark. UNM won 15 games when it shot 40 percent or better. The completeness of a Don Flanagan team was revealed in games such as UNM's 60-57 win at Brigham Young. UNM shot 33 percent from the floor against the Cougars. UNM shot 33.9 percent in a Pit win over TCU.

Flanagan likes his Lobos to play a complete game. He also likes them to blister the nets. It makes his day go so much nicer.

The Lobos' shooting woes of 2009-10 were well documented, and much of the blame simply fell onto the shoulders of players who did not finish or did not hit open shots. But teams also realized that UNM's strength last year was on the perimeter and UNM's outside guns saw a lot of pressure. It would be easier on that talented perimeter this season, if the Lobos could show some fierce weapons inside.

The call there, inside, goes to Jessica Kielpinski and two young Lobo pups.


"They can all shoot it. Now who can carry it over into a game? The ones that carry it over will play the most."
Lobo Coach Don Flanagan

"The twos and threes are fine. Now, can they hit a shot in big games? That remains to be seen," said Flanagan. "I think our problem with scoring last year was that we were not able to score consistently inside. That's something we really have to work on."

Best is a key up front. She needs to score a bit and run the offense a lot. Down low, Flanagan will be looking for the 6-foot-1 Kielpinski to step up and score up. He also is looking for help inside off the bench

"Jessica has to give us more points, better handles, and more rebounding," said Flanagan. "She'll hold her own on rebounding and defense, and she is versatile enough to be more of a scorer. We want her to go out there with confidence and we want her to shoot the ball. She has experience now and we want her to take a step up and play at a higher level. We need her to be effective down low."

Kielpinski lost some experienced help inside with the graduation of Weissmann and the 6-6 Kast. That makes room for some younger Lobos to see opportunity in the paint. The apparent backups to Kielpinski are 6-5 Emily Stark and 6-4 Erin Boettcher. Those pups give Flanagan more size inside, less experience.

"They look like they going to be pushing Jessica," said Flanagan. "I don't think she had that last year. Emily has really improved from last year. She has moments where she really impresses you and then she has other moments."

Flanagan says he likes his depth at the "4" position (forward/high post) behind forwards Porche Torrance, Jordan Unverzagt, Chinyere Nnaji, Jourdan Erskine, and Morgan Toben. He said he also is looking for one of those to step up and prove they can help out with inside scoring.

"I like the depth there," said Flanagan. "It's not a position I have too many worries about. I also need them to rebound for us."

Last season was a curious one for the Lobos. They marched into postseason play for the 13th consecutive time and, at times, played ball at a level as high as any other MWC team. But they also had a number of lows and probably the main culprit in UNM falling short of an NCAA bid was a shooting touch that too often ended with a "clank" sound rather than a "swish" sound.

UNM shot 38 percent as a team from the field with Sara Halasz and Best at 40 percent and Lauren Taylor and Kielpinski at 36 percent. Torrance is UNM's top returning gun, percentage wise, at 44 percent. She probably needs to become more of a shooter in 2010-11. UNM shot 33 percent from behind the 3-point line with no Lobo starter shooting better than 39 percent.

It was frustrating for Flanagan because his Lobos of 2009-10 often shot "lights out" in the Davalos Center. They often did not carry that touch into games. Flanagan had shooters on the perimeter in 2009-10. He has shooters again in 20010-11. But will they be scorers, too? Will it be "clank" or "swish?"

"They can all shoot it," said Flanagan. "Now who can carry it over into a game? The ones that carry it over will play the most."

Sr. Jessica Kielpinski

Flanagan was loaded at the perimeter last season and returns loaded in 2010-11, especially behind Halasz and Lauren Taylor. Halasz was UNM's No. 2 scorer last year, behind Beggin, hitting at a 10.2 clip while averaging 26.2 minutes a game. Taylor was the team's No. 4 scorer at 8.4 and averaged 22.4 minutes. They give UNM scoring and experience on the edge.

There also is lots of young talent in 5-10 Tina Doughty, 5-7, 5-7 Jasmine Patterson, and 6-0 Caroline Durbin. Flanagan's team also is versatile. Erskine, Toben, Nnaji and Torrance are versatile enough to be wings or forwards.

Flanagan probably would have to go "young" if he wanted to throw out a tall team. He could easily go "quick" and not compromise experience, but a quick lineup would make UNM one of the shortest teams in the conference.

The Lobos season of 2010-11 is very much a "wait-and-see" year because of the variety of question marks and because of the youth that is being asked to mature and produce quickly. Flanagan might have made it easy on a young team by tossing out a season of cupcakes. He didn't.

"This is the most aggressive schedule that we have put together in my tenure," said Flanagan. "With the combination of a successful season and a tough schedule, this positions our team for an opportunity to play in the postseason."

Tough might be the operative word for both pre-conference and conference. The Lobos' 2010-11 slate includes Oklahoma, a NCAA Final Four Team in 2010, and the Cal Bears, who won the WNIT. There are 12 teams on this season's schedule that are coming off seasons of postseason play. The MWC had six of those.

The aggressive UNM schedule also includes Texas Tech, UC Irvine, New Mexico State, UTEP, Arizona, and maybe Oklahoma State in UNM's Thanksgiving Tournament.

The schedule is a beast leading into the MWC wars and whether UNM can handle that beast will be answered by some obvious questions:

1- How will Best do at the point?
2- Is Kielpinski tall enough and confident enough to be an inside scorer?
3- Will the Davalos Center gunners be sharpshooters in The Pit and on the road?
4- How quickly will the young pups grow some D-I teeth?

"Anytime you are depending on five new players and they are freshmen, that makes you say, `Wait and see,'" said Flanagan. "We need to have our young kids be effective and be able to play quickly and I think they can. We go pretty deep. We are just not that experienced.

"But I like our young players. They are going to have great futures. We just need some of those futures to come this year."

Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former Sports Columnist and Associate Sports Editor for The Albuquerque Tribune. He can be reached at rstevens50@comcast.net.