The University of New Mexico women's basketball team ran its current winning streak to six, fending off several runs by the Fresno State Bulldogs to take an 82-73 victory at Dreamstyle Arena.
Saturday afternoon's "Pack The Pit" game accomplished its branding goal, drawing over 8,000 fans for the 2 p.m. tip. And New Mexico (18-2, 8-1 MW), perhaps drawing on some of the energy in the crowd, played really well defensively from the outset.
UNM forced four missed shots and created a turnover before Nike McClure, typically a defensive specialist, secured the first bucket minute and a half into the game.
Fresno State guard Candice White got loose and fired off a 3-point attempt to give the Bulldogs their first lead, but the sophomore sensation was pretty much held in check the rest of the first half — limited to just one more made basket over the first 20 minutes of play.
The Bulldogs connected on a couple more long-range shots, seizing an 11-8 advantage when Genna Ogier drilled one just past the halfway point of the first period.
But New Mexico caught fire. The Lobos utilized quick hands on defense and led the fast break to perfection on offense — seemingly stunning Fresno State with a 15-0 run that got The Pit crowd up and roaring.
White broke the run with her second 3-pointer of the game, but McClure closed out the quarter with another layup to give the Lobos a 25-14 edge through 10 minutes of play.
Despite White being held scoreless in the second quarter, the Bulldogs were able to slice into the lead thanks to a trio of players who collaborated to score 20 points in the frame.
Aly Gamez appeared to lead the charge. She exploded for nine points alone, including the first six of the quarter to bring her team back to within five.
Later, she hit a 3-pointer and saw teammate Maddi Utti get a layup to fall as Fresno State closed the gap to 29-27 at about the midway point.
The Lobos responded and got senior post Jaisa Nunn going down on the blocks. A few minutes later, she recorded back-to-back layups and Antonia Anderson swatted a pass down, collected the loose ball and glided in for an uncontested layup to reassert control and go ahead 40-31.
She and UNM head coach Mike Bradbury referred to the scoop and scores as "pick-6's" in the postgame conference, a comparison to an interception return for touchdown.
That play appeared to zap some of the energy from the Bulldogs, though Bree Delaney scored the final three points of the half to inch Fresno State a little closer.
UNM continued to display dominance in the third quarter, and led by as many as 13 before Fresno State made another rally.
The Bulldogs trailed 47-34 after getting punished in the paint on multiple straight possessions, but saw White come to life to tally nine points in the frame. Her emergence, coupled with another 3-pointer by Delaney made the score 53-52 with three minutes and change remaining in the third.
But New Mexico fought off the comeback attempt again, closing things out with an 11-2 run. Anderson found the soft spot in the middle of the zone to hit on a couple of jumpers in the paint and secured another "pick-6", gliding coast-to-coast for an easy lay-in and a 64-54 advantage heading into the final period.
Fresno State made a couple more runs, but could never quite get over the hump. Part of the problem was the inability to stop the Lobos in the paint. The Bulldogs seemed to have no answer for Nunn and company when they got the ball deep in the post.
Bradbury said the game plan and its result was essentially a case of both squads trying to do what they do well. He said New Mexico fed the post and won the battle in the paint, but felt Fresno State had better backcourt play and tried to capitalize there.
Fresno State made a few shots early in the fourth, but failed to make up much ground and still trailed by eight about three and a half minutes in after surrendering a couple of layups.
The Bulldogs still managed to make it a one-possession game on three separate occasions. They even had a chance to move closer or tie the game the first time around, but a turnover that led to a Jayla Everett layup thwarted that opportunity.
Everett delivered another critical blow moments later, dropping in a rainbow shot from beyond the arc to make it a 76-70 game with under two minutes remaining.
The Lobos played stifling defense on the ensuing possession and Aisia Robertson pretty much sealed the game when she went to the floor to outwork Utti on a rebound the Bulldog senior had seemingly secured, somehow muscling the ball away and drawing a foul.
Fresno State was forced to continue fouling to extend the game, but the Lobos were up to the task and knocked them down — closing things out for an 82-73 victory.
The Lobos held a sizable advantage in the paint, where they outscored their opponent 48-30 and imposed the team's high-octane pace en route to a 34-14 edge in fast break points.
One glaring statistic on the box score was the ineffectiveness of New Mexico to guard the 3-point line. The Bulldogs made a living out there, making an impressive 11 from long range on 41 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
White ended up with 22 points to lead her Fresno State team, while Nunn tallied a game-high 23 points as each team saw four players turn in double-digit scoring performances.
McClure went a perfect 7-for-7 from the floor and wound up with 14 points and three blocks. The 6-3 senior forward said she can't always control how many points she scores, but always brings the energy and effort —something that usually manifests on the defensive end.
She said she has always been a happy player, saying she doesn't see any reason not to have the time of her life when she is out on the floor.
"This is (something) that not many people get a chance to experience in their lifetimes," McClure said. "This can get taken away from me at any moment, so I might have a blast every time I'm out there and try to put some smiles on other people's faces while I'm at it."
The win kept New Mexico atop the Mountain West standings, along with Boise State — which is also 8-1 in league play. UNM will travel to San Diego to face the Aztecs on Wednesday, Feb. 6 at noon.
Robert Maler is the sports editor for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers basketball and baseball and contributes content for various other sports as well. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Robert_Maler.