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Lobos learn how to finish

UNM turns up play in final minutes of first-round win

Las Vegas, Nev. - The UNM women's basketball team has had trouble closing out its opponents in the final minutes of games this season and often has barely hung on for the victory.

But on Wednesday, UNM changed its ways, using clutch free-throw shooting and numerous offensive rebounds to slide past the pesky San Diego State University 55-49 to advance to the second round of the Mountain West Conference Tournament.

The Aztecs closed a nine-point UNM lead to a 48-47 margin with only 28 seconds remaining in the game. That seemed to rattle the Lobos, but the nearly 4,000 fans who came from New Mexico helped turned the Thomas & Mack Center into a mini-Pit.

The fans were loud and helped provide the spark and comfort that the Lobos needed to put the game away.

"We have great crowds, loyal fans, that will come a day early to see us play," UNM head coach Don Flanagan said. "The crowd was very responsive and it almost felt like we were at the Pit."

SDSU used the inside-outside attack of senior guard Sophia Sledge, who hit four 3-pointers to finish with 17 points, and the inside dominance of junior Atim Otii, who scored a season-high 21 points and eight rebounds, to stay with the Lobos.

But down the stretch, offensive rebounding guided the Lobos to victory. With the Lobos clinging to a one-point lead, senior Nikki Heckroth was fouled and put on the free-throw line for two critical free throws. Heckroth made the first to give the Lobos a 49-47 lead with only 26.8 seconds remaining. Heckroth missed the second free throw, but senior Miranda Sanchez grabbed the offensive rebound and was fouled.

Sanchez, who came in shooting better than 86 percent from the line, connected on both free throws to give the Lobos a 51-47 lead. On SDSU's next possession, Molly McKinnon's steal forced the Aztecs to foul Heckroth again. Heckroth again only hit one of two from the line, but Sanchez pulled down another offensive rebound, which she threw off of an Aztec player as she fell out of bounds, to retain possession for the Lobos.

"It was definitely huge, it was coming down to crunch time in the game, and, if we got that rebound, we pretty much had the game," Sanchez said.

Sanchez took the ensuing in-bound pass and connected on a deep three from the wing to give the Lobos a comfortable 55-47 lead with only a few seconds remaining. A buzzer-beater layup by Otii was not enough for the Aztecs. The Lobos had 38 rebounds on the night, with sophomore Chelsea Grear grabbing seven rebounds and Sanchez pulling down six. The Aztecs had only 32 rebounds, which helped the Lobos cover up their 23 turnovers.

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An unlikely fan sat in the stands Wednesday for the UNM-SDSU match-up. Former Buffalo Bills quarterback Doug Flutie was in the stands wearing a UNM shirt, cheering for the Lobos.

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"My cousin went to New Mexico, and I started supporting them," Flutie said. "They are my second-favorite team - Boston College is still number one."

Flutie played football at BC and provided one of the greatest college plays of all-time with his Hail Mary pass to beat the University of Miami (Fla.) in 1984.

Flutie said he believes that the Lobos have a shot of going to the tournament finals and dancing their way into the NCAA tournament.

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