ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Coach Yvonne Sanchez and the New Mexico Lobos (7-7, 2-1 MW) are looking to exorcise some regular-season demons in Las Vegas, Nev., on Wednesday evening.
The Lobos have two wins against UNLV (5-10, 2-1 MW) in the last two seasons but both came during the Mountain West Tournament. The Lady Rebels have beaten UNM in the last four consecutive regular-season matchups.
“During the regular season, we haven’t been able to get them on the road or at home," Sanchez told the media. "Wednesday evening will be tough because they are a really, really good team. Their record doesn’t do them justice because they are an excellent team.”
It will be a tall order for the Lobos as UNLV returns its entire team from last season minus all-conference guard Kelli Thompson. While losing one of the most prolific scorers in recent conference history is tough, Rebels coach Kathy Olivier has a pair of dangerous additions to this year’s squad.
Redshirt senior Mia Bell is back this year after missing all of last season due to knee surgery. Bell was an All-MW performer as well as a MW All-Defensive Team member in 2011-12. While Bell brings a serious presence on the perimeter,
Arizona transfer Aley Rohde gives UNLV a weapon inside. The 6-foot, 5-inch sophomore is fourth in the conference in rebounding (8.1 per game) and sixth in blocks (1.4 per game). Rohde had eight blocks and 10 rebounds the last time she faced UNM while as a member of the Arizona Wildcats in 2011-12.
Complementing Bell and Rohde, the Rebels return a litany of talented players, including Réjane Vérin and Alana Cesarz. Vérin is the reigning MW Freshman of the Year who posted an impressive 19 points and nine rebounds against New Mexico in last year’s Mountain West Championships.
Cesarz, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in January of 2013, is a talented forward who can do a little bit of everything. She was averaging 15.6 points and 7.1 rebounds through 19 games last season before the injury. The forward is chipping in 13.0 points and 5.7 rebounds in 2013-14.
“They have a good team," said senior guard Sara Halasz. "They’re very athletic with some strong returners. They’re very smart and transition will be our biggest key. UNLV looks for its players (on the break). They have Bell and Cesarz -- who are a very active guard and a very active post player -- back."
While Bell, Rohde, Vérin and Cesarz are a formidable quartet, none of them is the team’s leading scorer this season. That honor goes to senior guard Danielle Miller, whose scoring average of 13.5 ppg is ninth in the Mountain West.
Olivier’s Lady Rebels have plenty of weapons, and they’re balanced from the point guard to the wing to the post.
The Cherry and Silver will head to Sin City riding the momentum of a pair of home wins over Wyoming and San Jose State. The two wins saw the UNM offense score 75 and 80 points, courtesy of improved shooting. The Lobos also crashed the boards and posted a combined plus-22 rebounding advantage vs. the Cowgirls and the Spartans.
There was one Lobo who led the pack in those wins: Halasz earned MW Player of the Week honors after averaging 20.5 points, 11.5 rebounds and 1.5 assists in the pair of wins in The Pit. Her week was highlighted by her first ever 20-point, 10-rebound performance in UNM's 80-68 victory over SJSU. She finished with 23 points, 14 rebounds and two assists. The 14 rebounds were a career high and her 23 points were one shy of tying another career high.
“A healthy Sara is a good Sara for us. She looks good, and she’s playing with confidence," said Sanchez of Halasz’s impact on the team. "As Sara goes, the team goes. You saw what she did last game with 23 points and 14 rebounds, and then you saw what Antiesha (Brown) did with 19 points, Deeva (Vaughn) with 21 points and Kianna (Keller) had a double-double. I think we feed off each other, and I think we saw that the last two games.”
Sanchez also noted the defensive emphasis for her team.
“(The Rebels) run the floor well, and they set a lot of ball screens. Against them our nemesis has been those ball screens for straight line drives to the basket. That’s what we need to slow down.”
Straight lines to the basket are what San Jose State was able to get in the half court and in transition at times on Saturday. Those inside buckets helped SJSU cut an 18-point deficit to six points in the second half.
The New Mexico frontline is recently reinforced with the return of Vaughn, who had 21 points with six rebounds in an efficient 20 minutes of action last weekend. Her return to the lineup has been part of the recent stability for UNM.
“It (chemistry) is starting to build with us where we are playing together and finding open players. Our post players are being more active, and having Deeva back is great,” Halasz said.
Vaughn will be joined by Kianna Keller and Alexa Chavez down low. Keller had a quiet double-double (10 points and 10 rebounds) last game and gives UNM a shot blocker in the paint. The freshman is third in the conference with 1.6 blocks per game. She is approaching the top five of the freshman block records for UNM after just 14 games.
New Mexico’s defense continues to be the team’s calling card. UNM is among the MW leaders in scoring defense (62.9 ppg – second in MW), 3-point field goal defense (26.7 percent - first in MW) and blocked shots (4.1 bpg – third in MW).
Will the defense stay in sync with the offense that’s finding its stride? Or will UNLV have the Lobos’ number again as it has had the last few years in Cox Pavilion?
That’s for Wednesday night to decide. …