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Cougars claw past UNM

Over the years The Pit has been known as a place opponents feared, but Saturday night the Brigham Young University women’s basketball team showed no fear in beating UNM 79-72 in a key Mountain West Conference game.

With the loss, the Lobos drop to 13-8 overall and 4-3 in the Mountain West, which ties them for third place with the Cougars, who are 12-8 overall. Both teams are chasing front-runner University of Utah, who is 6-0 in conference play.

The Lobos fell victim to lights-out shooting in the first half by BYU and early foul trouble from sophomore center Jordan Adams, who picked up two quick fouls in the first 3:20 of the game. When Adams went to the bench at the 16:40 mark of the first half, the Lobos held on to a slim 8-7 lead.

UNM looked like it would be able to play without its leading scorer when sophomore Jasmine Ewing came off the bench and connected on an off-balance jumper as the shot clock expired to give the Lobos an early 10-7 lead. Adams did not play the rest of the half and scored no points.

But BYU countered with an amazing shooting display from 3-point range led by sophomore sensation Erin Thorn, who torched the Lobos with 4-of-5 shooting from behind the arc.

The Lobos found themselves down only 19-18 thanks to a pair of free throws by senior Jennifer Williams, but the Cougars stormed right back as junior Stacy Jensen hit two 3-pointers to propel BYU on a 10-0 run for a comfortable 29-18 lead. After that, the UNM offense was stagnant.

“I thought our offense was pretty stationary, we just seem to get too stationary,” UNM head coach Don Flanagan said. “I’m going to have to get more set things to do with screening, cuts and things like that so that we’re not stationary.”

The Lobos did manage to get a small spark from sophomore Cristal Garcia and senior Nikki Heckroth, when they hit back-to-back three-pointers to close the gap to 29-24 with seven minutes remaining in the first half.

BYU quickly gained the momentum back as freshman Julie Whetten connected on a 3-pointer to push the lead back to 32-24 in favor of the Cougars. At the time BYU was shooting 8-of-10 from behind the arc. BYU ended the first half shooting 10-of-15 from 3-point range for 66.7 percent.

The Lobos found themselves in a world of trouble, down 45-32 with only 1:58 left until halftime, and it appeared that they would be blown out of the Pit. But UNM responded with an 8-0 run to close out the first half behind two free-throws and an offensive put-back by junior Molly McKinnon to go into the locker room down 45-40. Heckroth led the Lobos with 10 points heading into the locker room.

“Their shooting was terrific and to be able to shoot from beyond the arc like that really creates problems for your defense,” Flanagan said.

In the second half it wasn’t BYU’s three-point shooting that gave UNM trouble, but the Cougars’ inside game, led by senior Caroline Betts. Betts connected on a number of easy layups to end with 11 points in the game and give the Cougars a commanding 56-46 lead with less than 14 minutes in the game.

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“They maintained balance, they didn’t try things they couldn’t do, they stayed within the team concept, they didn’t take bad shots from the post,” Flanagan said. “If they got doubled teamed they got the ball out, they recognized defensive pressures.”

Every time it seemed like the Lobos would rally and take control of the game, BYU would go to Erin Thorn. Thorn hit a huge jumper that silenced the 11,067 Lobo fans and gave the Cougars a 64-58 lead with about eight minutes to go.

“She’s really improved her game, she’s got all kinds of weapons,” Flanagan said. “She can pull it up, she can take it to the basket, she can shoot the three, she’s a complete player right now and she showed it tonight.”

BYU went up 73-66 with only one minute and 27 seconds left in the game when senior Miranda Sanchez scored on a layup, was fouled and converted the three-point play to close the gap to 73-69 with 1:16 left.

The Lobos quickly fouled Jensen and she missed the front end of a one-and-one.

Adams, who had been relatively quite the entire night stepped up and hit a big three to cut BYU’s lead to 73-72 with 1:03 left.

Instead of playing hard-nosed defense, the Lobos fouled Thorn who connected on her two free-throw attempts to make it a 75-72 game. The Lobos then shot themselves in the foot, turning the ball over twice the last minute of play and Thorn was there to make them pay. Thorn scored the Cougars final six points to end with a game-high 31 points on 10-of-20 shooting from the floor and 5-of-9 from 3-point range.

Despite the Cougars’ shooting barrage, the Lobos managed to shoot better than BYU. UNM connected on 23 of 48 shots for 47.9 percent, compared to the Cougars’ 27-of-61, 44.3 percent effort. The key in the game lay outside the arc, where BYU was 12-of-23 from 3-point range while New Mexico was only 5-of-16 for 31.3 percent.

“We’ve got to be able to defend that and obviously we weren’t ready tonight,” Heckroth said.

Though the Lobos had four players in double figures including McKinnon, who had a team-high 13 points but the Lobos were unable to get Adams on track. Adams had only nine points and one rebound in 18 minutes of action. Adams was shutout against Colorado State University on Jan.27 in a 65-58 UNM loss in Fort Collins, Colo.

The Lobos must now prepare for Saturday’s game against the Air Force Academy in the Pit. Air Force is coming off a 59-29 beating at the hands of Utah. UNM defeated Air Force in Colorado Springs, Colo., 79-51 on Jan.13.

“We will come out next Saturday playing really hard; we have to make sure a team like that can’t come in and beat us,” Heckroth said.

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