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WNIT reward for roller coaster season

After the adversity the UNM women’s basketball team went through this year, dealing with the pressures of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament championship game was a reward for the team’s efforts toward the end of the season.

In an up-and-down season, the Lobos showed a lot of character after losing four of five games in midseason by winning four of its last six games. They were rewarded with an exciting run through the WNIT, which ended with a 62-61 loss to Ohio State University.

Flanagan said the 2000-2001 season was unlike anything he has been through before. He said some things, such as unhappy players, hurt the team, but the season turned around with improved communication and senior leadership. Flanagan said the WNIT trip was a reward for the team’s perseverance.

“It was great tournament for us,” Flanagan said. “You know, if we had ended at 18-12, it would have been a real average year for us, and we would have been disappointed. But then we won four more games and ended up 22-13. That’s a good year. When I looked at this schedule, I didn’t think we could have won 20 games.”

The tournament was a reward for Flanagan, too. He had dealt with the pressure of rising expectations by fans, the media and even his own boss.

He had been criticized for playing senior point guard Nikki Heckroth too much, not having a go-to player in critical situations and for some of his game plans.

Athletic director Rudy Davalos had said in a February article in the Albuquerque Tribune that he wanted to see better recruits from Flanagan and his coaching staff.

“We heard a lot of, ‘Well, the Lobos aren’t going to do it this year. They’re not going to make it,’ ‘They don’t have the right potential, the right players to get it done,’ ‘They don’t have a go-to player, they don’t have a good point guard,’” Heckroth said. “But on top of that, we turned a lot of heads, and made them think differently. We’ve never been one to really dwell on what other people think of us, but we’re proud of ourselves.”

Heckroth said the team’s hard work and the senior’s leadership helped turn the season around. She said she felt the program was in good hands with some of the younger players stepping into the seniors’ leadership roles.

“We had some young players out there tonight who are going to step it even further next year,” Heckroth said. “I have a lot of them coming up to me and saying, ‘Nick, I am going to work so hard over the summer for next year.’ To hear that kind of thing really is nice for me to leave and know they’re going to work just as hard or harder than I did.”

The tournament turned into a rewarding experience for UNM’s future with sophomores Jordan Adams and Chelsea Grear, who both ended up on the WNIT’s all-tournament team.

Adams averaged 17.8 points per game during the tournament, including a 20-point performance Wednesday night. Grear averaged 11 points per game during the same stretch, but she also hauled in 9.6 rebounds per contest, including 15 rebounds in the championship game.

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She said the hard work one person puts in rubs off on the other players.

“It’s just a lot of hard work and just hustling,” Adams said. “When you see somebody else diving for a ball, that makes you want to dive for a ball. It just kind of rubs off from player to player. To see Chelsea working like she does, you just want to do the same thing. Everybody’s just working hard watching each other.”

As the coaching staff and the players look forward to next season, Flanagan wouldn’t make any predictions about next year’s team, but he said he likes what he sees so far. And that includes picking up next season where this season left off: In the WNIT.

“I like our chances of doing something next year,” Flanagan said. “We’ll be in the WNIT right from the beginning. We’re in the preseason tournament next year, and there’s some good teams in there: UConn, teams like that.”

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