April 21, 2009
By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
It was a season of overachieving, a season of 25 wins, national rankings, dramatic victories, heartbreaking defeats and in the end a four-game journey into the Women's National Invitation Tournament put a stamp on a season and a program that really comes as no surprise.
The Don Flanagan Lobos are embraced with a warmth and a passion that has few equals in college basketball.
"We have such a special opportunity at the University of New Mexico because the whole state is behind us and behind us no matter where we play," said Lobo junior Amy Beggin.
"To have that many fans at the WNIT creating that kind of atmosphere was unbelievable. It just shows the pride our fans take in Lobo basketball and it reminds us how much we give back to them."
The Lobos made a huge statement at the end of the 2008-09 season when they took their show to the Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho and the place was packed by the Lobos' howling pack of fans. The Lobos' venture in the WNIT outdrew WNIT and NCAA games coast-to-coast.
It wasn't the NCAA and that always is a thorn in a Flanagan program that always shoots for NCAA play, but the WNIT wasn't really a bad spot for a young New Mexico team, which returns 70 percent of its scoring for 2009-10.
"At 22-10, there was room for us to be in the NCAA Tournament and I thought we deserved to go," said Flanagan, the winningest coach in Lobo history. "But you can't always expect the committee to put you in. You have to go out and do your work.
"It always benefit's the program, if you play in the postseason. The four games in the WNIT were important to us. They helped us win 25 games. We had good success. We beat a good Pac-10 team and beat a good Big 12 team. We are encouraged about next year."
Said Beggin: "To play four games in the NCAA Tournament, we would have had to pull off a lot of upsets. So what we got out of the WNIT turned out to be very beneficial. I'm sure a lot of people didn't expect us to be as successful as we were this season."
The Lobos were a pack of question marks going into the 2008-09 season because of the graduation of Dionne Marsh and Brandi Kimble, two of the more dynamic players to ever don Lobo jerseys. Two great scorers, too.
And would the Lobos hold up in the post and wing positions where there was talent, but inexperience and not a whole lot of height?
But these young Lobos didn't stumble out of the gate. They roared out of the gate, running to an 11-1 mark and scratching their way into The Associated Press rankings for the first time since January of 2007.
The Lobos were led by Beggin's defense, scoring and gutsy play down the clutch. Senior Angela Hartill proved to be one of the more difficult centers in the league to defend and senior Amanda Adamson gave the Lobos consistent all-around play at the wing.
Junior Eileen Weissmann was solid and tough at the forward spots. Amanda Best, Sara Halasz, Georonika Jackson and Lauren Taylor gave Flanagan depth and scoring potential at the off-guard spot. Nikki Nelson provided quality minutes subbing for Beggin while Valerie Kast and Jessica Kielpinski did the same in the post for Hartill.
Still, it was Hartill and Beggin who were the heart of this team and the heart of the UNM scoring. Beggin led UNM with 15.4 points per game and Hartill was second at 12. Beggin was named to the All-MWC Second Team and Hartill was placed on the All-MWC Third Team.
Beggin also was on the All-MWC Defensive Team and named to the All-MWC Championship Team. Only a junior, Beggin already is destined to go down as one of UNM's top point guards ever. She set a school mark for minutes played in a season at 1,304 and is only the sixth junior to join the UNM 1,000-Point Club.
Beggin and Hartill helped lead a team, looked upon by many as a rebuilding unit, to the best non-conference start in school history.
"We heard a lot of talk that we were supposed to be rebuilding, but we didn't look at it that way," said Beggin. "But that helped us go into every game really motivated to win."
The Lobos' non-conference season was a smashing success, but the 2009 Mountain West Conference race had its ups and downs.
The first part of the MWC race started with "ups." The Lobos posted wins over UNLV, Air Force and BYU and stood 3-0 when arguably the deepest and most talented teams in the conference -- San Diego State -- stepped into The Pit. The Lobos lost a close 57-52 contest, but backed that loss with wins over TCU and Colorado State.
Then the Lobos had their hearts broken on Feb. 2 when the Utah Utes stepped into The Pit and stole a game in the final seconds, 53-50. It was a game the Lobos controlled until the final moments and probably should have won. It also was a mark of things to come.
The Lobos had the Utes on the ropes twice again during the season, but lost 57-54 in Salt Lake City and lost 56-55 in the semifinals of the MWC Tournament. The three losses were critical to UNM losing a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
"I think losing to San Diego State was a slap-in-the-face, wake-up call for us," said Senior center Angela Hartill. "But the Utah losses were knock-you-down blows. We could have beaten them all three times and definitely should have won two of them. I still can't watch the Utah game from the conference tournament. I might never watch it."
The bitter-sweet pill that came at the end of the season was UNM missing NCAA play, but still slipping into the postseason for the 12th straight season.
"The NCAA was a goal for us that we all thought we could reach," said Flanagan. "The NCAA Regionals were being played in The Pit and that was a motivational factor for us. We had an excellent season, but we lost too many close games."
Said Beggin: "Our expectations at UNM are high and that's always to make the NCAA tournament. We had a good run at it, but we were still disappointed in not going. But the NIT was a good experience and should make us better for next season."
Said Hartill. "There are moments and things you always aren't going to be happy with. But overall it was a very successful season. We did a lot of good things."