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Depsite criticism, Heckoth shows the way

Fans and critics of the UNM women's basketball team undoubtedly have opinions about point guard Nikki Heckroth.

As the team's assist leader, Heckroth is shaping up to be one of the best ever to play for the Lobos. But UNM coach Don Flanagan and her teammates say they don't look at Heckroth's statistics but what she brings to the team that numbers cannot show.

"She brings leadership, toughness, intelligence, desire and determination," Flanagan said. "Probably the most important thing is her leadership because she is the vocal leader on the team."

Most of the criticism about Heckroth centers around her lack of scoring, because the senior averages only 4.1 points per game and shoots 28.5 percent from the field.

"She's our captain, she's our leader and she just gets the offense going," teammate Miranda Sanchez said. "Scoring is not everything. She is giving the ball to people who can score and that is just as good."

Heckroth averages 5.6 assists per game, which leads the Mountain West Conference. She has 118 assists so far this season, a career-high, and is the only player in the conference with more than 100 assists.

"People think because she is not a scoring point guard that she's not an effective player on the team," Flanagan said. "When in fact, she's the one that starts everything out, so she is extremely important to our team. She is the only one that can run the offense with the efficiency we want."

And while Heckroth has heard all the critics before, she said she understands that it comes with playing in a basketball-crazed state.

"I realize that everyone has their own opinion," Heckroth said. "The fans love their basketball here, and they have a right to voice their opinions. I just use the criticism to inspire me."

Heckroth has helped lead the second-highest scoring attack in the Mountain West Conference at 69 points per game. And she also is near the top of the UNM record book in assists. She has 342 assists in her career, placing her in third place, 45 assists shy of Jean Rostermundt. Tamika Stukes holds the record with 469.

Known as a good ball-handler and a good decision-maker, Heckroth also has shown how tough she is. In a Jan. 13 game against the Air Force Academy, she received an elbow to the face, breaking her nose. Two minutes later, she returned and played the final nine minutes of the game.

Heckroth believes her most important addition to the team is her leadership.

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"The leadership is what is most important to me," she said. "Some players look to me at practice. I try to lead by example and help my teammates when they need me."

While knowing teams will continue to sag off of her to double-team the post players, Heckroth is confident she can and will score when needed to. During conference play, she has shown improvement in every offensive category, improving her shooting to 37 percent and has led the team in scoring twice.

"In conference play, teams have been laying off me because they don't expect me to score," Heckroth said. "I know that I need to step up and score, and that's what I have been doing."

Heckroth describes herself as a conservative point guard who looks to make the easy pass. She averages two assists for every turnover, a remarkable statistic considering she plays 35 minutes a game, most of any Lobo, and handles the ball almost exclusively. That includes three times when she played the entire game.

She set a career-high for assists in one game this season, recording 11 in a win against UCLA Nov. 11, and has led UNM in assists in 16 of 21 games.

Heckroth said she does not keep track of how many assists she has in a game but keeps track of whether the team is winning.

"The only thing that assures me that I am a good point guard is winning," Heckroth said. "In games I just concentrate getting the ball down the floor and not turning the ball over."

Heckroth said she wouldn't mind breaking the single-season assist record of 169, which she would break if she continues her current pace.

"That would mean a great deal to me to break the record," Heckroth said. "It would be a great accomplishment."

Heckroth will lead her team into battle against the Air Force Academy Saturday at 2 p.m. in The Pit. The Lobos are looking to get back on track after losing last weekend to Brigham Young University 79-72.

Looking at the matchup on paper, UNM (13-8, 4-3 MWC) should have an easy time defeating the Falcons. The team is winless in seven Mountain West games and 3-17 overall. Air Force is committing 19 turnovers per game and allowing a conference-high 68.2 points per game while scoring a conference-low 52.2 points per contest.

This is the second meeting between these two teams, with the Lobos cruising past the Falcons 68-44 in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Jan. 13.

"They play really hard, they can shoot the three and they run their offense pretty effectively," Flanagan said. "They are going to come in and play hard against us."

Flanagan said the key to beating the Falcons is stopping the back cuts to the basket. The Falcons run an offense in which the players stand on the perimeter and cut to the basket or shoot the three.

"They always scare me on their half-court offense," Flanagan said. "We are going to have to take away something, which will probably be the back cuts and let them shoot over our hands."

The Lobos had a similar plan in the first game. The Lobos protected against the cuts to the basket by sagging off the perimeter shooters. The Falcons hit a couple of 3-pointers early, but as soon as they stopped falling, the Lobos dominated from there.

Sophomore Jordan Adams and Sanchez had big games, scoring 21 and 17 points, respectively.

UNM will have to look out for Morgan Bennett, who averages a team-high 9.6 points per game and scored 10 in the last meeting.

Flanagan said his team will not be too overconfident against the Falcons. "If you play the teams in the lower end of the conference, you have to beat them, you can't mess with them," Flanagan said. "We have to go out there and take the game away from them."

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