STEVENS: Lobos Race Past Rams To Get a Shot at Utah in MWC Semis
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics  
Release:  03/11/2009
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics

March 11, 2009

Box Score

Lobo Basketball
Mountain West Conference Championships
When/Where: March 10-14, Las Vegas' Thomas & Mack Center
Wednesday: Lobos 62, Colorado State 48
Up Next: Lobos vs. Utah, 1 p.m. (Mt), Friday

By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com

It's the way it should be in a Mountain West Conference Tournament. Lobos vs. Utes. Don Flanagan vs. Elaine Elliott. Amy Beggin and Angela Hartill vs. Morgan Warburton and Kalee Whipple.

Of course, it should be a game for the title, but no big deal. Let the two most successful programs and the top coaches in the MWC square off at 1 p.m. (Mt) on Friday and see what happens, see who survives.

"To make the NCAA tournament, we have to prove that we deserve to be there and to prove that, we have to beat the best and Utah won the conference," said UNM's Beggin.

Said Hartill: "I'm trying to watch my words, but we're excited to get another shot at them."

Obviously, there isn't a lot of love lost between Utes and Lobos, but that's not news, not something that's going to spice up a team bulletin board. The Lobos and the Utes are established. They are good and they are always chasing the same thing -- success. The Utes' have grabbed a little bit more of the good stuff so far in 2009 because they won the MWC regular-season title and they bumped off the Lobos twice along the way.

The Lobos get a third shot at Utah thanks to back-to-back Thomas & Mack wins over Air Force on Tuesday and a 62-48 win over Colorado State on Wednesday. So, is it too early to start the psych job on the Utes?

"Their only weakness might be that they haven't played in this tournament yet and we have," said UNM's Flanagan in the media conference following the win over CSU.

Said Lobo Nikki Nelson: "We've been able to get out all our nerves and our chemisty has even grown in these past two games. We are used to this floor and used to the rims."

That's the thought that UNM has been trying to plant in the Utes' heads even since it became clear that Lobos had to win four games to grab the MWC crown and Utah, with a bye to the semis, had to win only two games.

You see, the Utes have not yet thrown up a shot at those Thomas & Mack rims that are so tight for all but Lobo shots. The Lobos, with five MWC crowns in the past six tourneys, will come at Utah rested. They will be lounging around on Thursday and freshing up those legs that already have ran to two wins in the MWC tourney. And surely the Utes know it's impossible to beat a team three times in one season -- well, unless you are Lobos.

The Lobos (22-9) turned the third-time-charm thing against CSU 62-48 by exploding out of a tight 46-43 game with 5:47 to play and racing away from the Rams. CSU scored only two field goals from the 5:47 mark to the game's end. Before that second shot fell at 1:07, the Lobos had soared to a fat 59-45 lead.

It was a shiny finish for the Lobos, who at times have been hesitant to allow anyone but Beggin to launch in the final minutes. Oh, Beggin was doing most of the launching at the end, but there didn't look to be any caution in the Lobos down the stretch.

Ironically, one of Beggin's best shots in crunch time was one of her worse shots. It was a too-long trey that clanked off the back of the rim and seemed to reach the Thomas & Mack ceiling before it fell perfectly back through the hole. That put UNM up 49-43 with 4:44 to go and the Lobo run was on. "It seems like we haven't had one of those in a while," Beggin said of her Beggin bounce. "I got a lucky bounce."

Hartill then hit two free throws followed by a Georonika Jackson jumper followed almost immediately by a Beggin steal. The Rams, who has played well and bravely up to that points, were falling apart like an old woolen sweater.

Beggin scored on a drive and a foul shot at 2:19 to fashion an old-fashioned 3-point play and UNM was up 56-45. Beggin then hit a single free throw and followed that by a breakaway layup and UNM was up 59-45 with 1:33 to play. Yeah, it was bring-on-the-Utes time. Beggin finished the Lobos' scoring with three free throws -- 62-48. She scored 12 points in the final 4:44 to finish with a game-high 20 points.

"She's a gamer," said Flanagan. "I would say she's a throw-back kind of player. You're always going to get effort. She's extremely dependable and she does so many little things."

Another Lobo, who had a Beggin-like performance, was Amanda Best. Best had only eight points, but they were big points on fearless drives. She also pulled down 11 rebounds, seven on the offensive end. Senior Angela Hartill scored 18 points and added six rebounds, five assists, a block and a steal. Jessica Kielpinski subbed in to grab five rebounds and three steals.

Oh, yeah, Beggin also had 10 rebounds. Her first career double-double. "Later on, she's going to cook supper for all of us," Flanagan said of his humble junior.

The Lobos' obvious goal in Vegas is to find some way to get to the NCAA tournament that will hold an opening round next week in The Pit. An automatic bid comes with the MWC tourney title. A charge to the championship game over Utah also would pad UNM's resume should an at-large bid become a possibility.

"It's a huge game. We know that," said Nelson. "That (playing Utah) is one thing we've been looking forward to."

If UNM is to get a huge win over Utah, it probably will have to come from a huge defensive effort on Warburton and Whipple. Warburton was the MWC Player of The Year. She averages 18.7 points and 6.2 rebounds. Whipple was MWC First Team. She scores at a 16.8 pace and hauls down 6.1 rebounds. The Utes mostly are a two-headed attack, but Katie King can be difficult inside and averages 10.8 points. Halie Sawyer scores at 7.8 per game.

"Down the stretch, they were more effective offensively than we were," Flanagan said of the Ute stars and Utah in the season sweep that went to the Utes 53-50 in The Pit and 57-54 in Salt Lake City.

Said Hartill: "They are very good athletes and they work hard and step up during critical times of the game."

Said Beggin: "It's nice to get another shot at them. We expect it to come down to the wire."

In a way, that would be a fitting ending, too. You just expect that when Lobos and Utes play basketball.