The University of New Mexico Lobos know all too well that tonight’s women’s basketball game against Texas at the Pit is a big opportunity.
It’s a chance for the Lobos to test themselves against a quality Big 12 opponent and perhaps make an early statement that they’ll be players in this season’s Mountain West Conference race.
Of course, tonight’s matchup also presents a huge challenge. The Longhorns return all five starters from last season and were picked to finish fifth in a deep Big 12 race this year.
And the Longhorns starting front line? You guessed it – big.
Texas has 6-foot-7 Imani McGee-Stafford, backed up by 6-5 Kelsey Lang at center, and Nneka Enemkpali, who plays much larger than her 6-1 listing at power forward.
“They’re big,” Lobo forward Deeva Vaughn said. “We’ve got to keep them out of the paint and just fight. We’ve got to fight.”
Preparing for a 40-minute battle has been something of a theme for the Lobos in recent days. Coach Yvonne Sanchez and her players felt they let a win get away last week at Texas Tech, undone by a slow start and failure to execute in the game’s final minute.
“We just didn’t finish,” Sanchez said. “The up side was we put ourselves in a position to win at the end. Now we have another opportunity against a very good team.”
It will be UNM’s first meeting with Texas since 2006, but the Longhorns are not entirely unfamiliar to everyone in Lobo colors.
“I think I played five of those girls in high school,” sophomore Bryce Owens said. “I lost to them, too, so I’d really like to get some revenge.”
Owens, who is from DeSoto, Texas, specifically recalled playing against Texas’ Empress Davenport, Brianna Taylor and Nneka Enemkpali. The Lobos’ starting point guard said she has a good idea what to expect from the Longhorns tonight.
“They want to speed us up,” Owens said, “get us out of our pace. We can’t let them do it.”
Sanchez, meanwhile, based her expectations on familiarity with second-year Texas coach Karen Aston. Sanchez got to know Aston when both were assistant coaches for the programs they now lead.
Aston also coached North Texas to a home win over Sanchez’s Lobos in 2011-12, Aston’s lone season with the Mean Green before taking over in Austin.
“I credit Karen Aston for being willing to come play us in the Pit,” Sanchez said. “She’s building that program back up and wants to play in front of a good crowd. We have to go back to Texas next year, but that’s fine. Games like this are really good for us.”
No one is more familiar with Texas, however, than Lobo assistant coach Edwina Brown. A former National Player of the Year for the Longhorns, Brown also served as an assistant coach in Austin and has had the task of scouting her alma mater’s current squad.
“Very mixed emotions,” Brown said of her first time coaching against Texas. “It’ll be my first time to see Texas orange from the other bench, but I’m sure it won’t be the last. The main thing I want to see (tonight) is for our girls to go out and compete.”
IN THE BOOKS: UNM officially completed its recruiting for 2014-15 over the weekend, receiving a signed letter of intent from Jayda Bovero. A 5-11 wing from Utah’s Syracuse High School, Bovero averaged 11.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 3.1 steals per game as junior last season.
She was listed as a top-100 player to watch and the top wing in the state of Utah by ESPN.com’s Hoopgurlz.
“Jayda’s the kind of big, physical guard we need,” Sanchez said. “She can get you a double-double, can shoot the 3, and she’s very, very basketball smart. An awful lot of schools were recruiting her. She’s a good get for us.”