LAS VEGAS — Through its first six quarters of play in the 2018 Mountain West Tournament, the University of New Mexico women’s basketball team looked like the team that started 13-0 on the season — but just like the regular season, the momentum came to a screeching halt.
New Mexico ran roughshod over San Jose State in the opening round, blasting the Spartans 84-54. Things appeared to be going the same way against Wyoming in the second round matchup, as the Lobos sprinted out to a 33-18 halftime advantage.
In the second half, though, UNM faltered. And after scoring just 18 points and shooting 29 percent in the first half, Wyoming dominated by scoring 51 points in the second half of play en route to a 69-66 win over the Lobos at the Thomas & Mack Center on Tuesday evening.
Senior guard Liv Roberts opened up the game with a layup to put Wyoming up first, but UNM quickly answered back with a 3-pointer from freshman guard N’Dea Flye to go up 3-2.
Just two and a half minutes into the game, the Lobos got another 3-pointer from senior guard Laneah Bryan. Wyoming was able to tie things up at 6-6, but both teams struggled to find the basket over the next several minutes.
Junior post Jaisa Nunn broke the stalemate after she was able to get the steal on defense and finish the fast break with a layup to put UNM up 8-6.
Later in the first quarter, freshman guard Madi Washington scored the final Lobo points of the quarter with a make from downtown, giving UNM a 13-10 advantage.
In the second quarter, it was all UNM. Nunn opened up the scoring with a layup, Washington nailed another 3-pointer and the Lobos quickly built an eight-point lead. New Mexico continued to add to the total and went up by double digits when senior guard Cherise Beynon hit a 3-ball to make it 27-16 with a little under four minutes before halftime.
Things were looking promising for the Lobos, as the team took a 15-point edge with them into the locker room, just 20 minutes away from advancing to the quarterfinal round.
But then the third quarter happened.
UNM was stagnant on offense, connecting on just one of its 14 shot attempts in the third. The defense struggled as well, as the Cowgirls outscored the Lobos 25-9 in the period.
Wyoming scored the first seven points of the frame to chop the Lobos’ lead down to eight points.
Taylor Rusk, a sophomore guard for Wyoming, was an absolute nuisance of for the Lobos — scoring 10 points in the frame.
The Lobos appeared to weather the shooting woes by making good use of the free throw line. Beynon made a pair from the foul line about midway through the period to put the Lobos on top 39-29.
But later in the third, the Cowgirls went on a 9-0 run that took just two minutes as Marta Gomez drilled a 3-pointer to make it a one-point game, 39-38.
Eventually the Cowgirls took their first lead since the score was 2-0 in the opening moments of the game, when Roberts made the layup while also being fouled.
Roberts sunk the free throw and gave her team a 43-42 lead to completely erase the sizable halftime deficit — made possible by Wyoming shooting lights out from the floor with a 69.2 percent success rate.
The fourth quarter started well for New Mexico, as Flye hit a 3-pointer to open the frame, putting the Lobos up 45-43. But Wyoming rallied to score the next five points to take the lead once again.
Though UNM shot a much better 52.9 percent from the field in the fourth quarter, Wyoming did not budge. The Lobos continued to stay close though and found themselves down just two points, 63-61, after Washington nailed a tough jumper with 30 seconds left to play in the game.
“I thought, especially in the first half, we played well,” UNM head coach Mike Bradbury said. “Defensively we were sound and, most importantly, we were plus-five rebounding. That was a big reason we had the lead.”
But that rebounding trend did not continue in the second half, as the Lobos were crushed on the boards. Wyoming outworked New Mexico on the boards to the tune of 24-15.
“In the second half, we got beat up on the boards...you know, that’s one thing we talk about when we play them,” Bradbury continued. “If we can just be around even, then we (would) probably win. They made a real effort to drive the ball, and we had a hard time guarding them.”
Beynon gave UNM life when she nailed a 3-pointer with five seconds to bring the Lobos within a point of Wyoming, 67-66. But Wyoming junior guard Clara Tapia nailed both free throws to add on to her team’s lead.
UNM took a timeout with 3.3 seconds to play and set up a play for Tesha Buck to take a potential game-tying 3-pointer — but she missed the contested attempt and the Lobos’ chance at a Mountain West Tournament title came to an end.
“Just very disappointed,” Beynon said. “We came out with a really strong first half, and we didn’t match the energy (in the second half). So just disappointed in myself and how we let it slip through our hands.”
UNM freshman forward Antonia Anderson played 10 minutes in the first half, much of which came in the second quarter. She had five first-half points, but logged in just four minutes in the second half.
Bradbury said Anderson played well in the first half, but opted to play junior post Nunn more as the game went on, because he believed she had been the best player on the team over the last month. He added that Buck had also made two 3-pointers, which kept the Lobos in the game, while Anderson was out of the lineup during crunch time.
Nunn led the Lobos with a team-high of 20 points and 14 rebounds. Washington had 12 points, and Beynon, in her last conference tournament game, had 10 points.
As a team, the Lobos shot 35.5 percent in the game, Wyoming shot 41.5 percent — though the Cowgirls were held to just three 3-pointers.
Wyoming’s big second half allowed it to win the rebounding battle, topping the Lobos in the category by a 39-35 margin.
“It was real physical down there,” Nunn said of playing in the post. “It was just a battle. And getting the rebounds, you had to go hard for them. Sometimes you got them, sometimes you didn’t. It was just real physical.”
Rusk, who scored a game-high 21 points with eight rebounds, led the Cowgirls. Senior forward Natalie Baker had 14 points, Gomez had 13 points, and Roberts had 11 points, respectively.
And while the Lobos are out of the Mountain West Tournament, Bradbury said he thinks his team will be in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament — but he and the players will have to wait to find out about the team’s postseason fate when the field is announced next Monday.
Matthew Narvaiz is a senior sports reporter for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers men’s and women’s basketball and baseball. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @matt_narvaiz.