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Lobos freshmen have been key to hot start to season

UNM’s Quincy Noble (1) is part of a freshman class that’s averaging 32.1 points a game this season. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Finals week officially comes to an end today for members of the UNM women’s basketball team.

Examinations complete, the Lobos will board a bus for Las Cruces this afternoon to face a test of a different kind – round two of their annual rivalry with New Mexico State on Saturday at 2 p.m.

UNM coach Mike Bradbury is admittedly glad to have his players’ undivided attention for the next few weeks and he insists that basketball class remains very much in session. Such is particularly the case for the Lobos’ talented freshman class, which has played a significant role in their team’s 7-1 start.

How significant?

Two of the five freshmen, Jayla Everett and Ahlise Hurst, are starters and both have had monster performances during the season’s first six weeks. Both are averaging double-figure points and have shown themselves to be tenacious defenders.

The other three, Quincy Noble, Shai McGruder and Bre’asiajah Mathews, are battling for minutes on a deep UNM team, but Bradbury is willing to give all five freshmen passing midterm grades.

“Yeah, I feel like they’ve all played well to this point,” Bradbury said after Thursday’s practice at the Davalos Center. “They’ve still got maturing to do – they are freshmen – but they’re making us better and they have the ability to keep making us better.”

As a group, New Mexico’s freshmen are averaging 32.1 points and 14.6 rebounds per game. Nothing less was expected from UNM’s class of 2018. It was the program’s highest-rated freshman class (ESPNW ranked the Lobos’ group at No. 15 nationally) and that was before Hurst signed on last spring.

And so far, the group has been remarkably cohesive.

“I love our freshman class,” Everett said. “I think we bring a lot to the table and we’ve got really good chemistry together. And, we’re just getting started.”

Everett was the highest-rated member of UNM’s freshman class and has quickly adapted to the college game. She ranks second on the team in minutes played (31.3 per game) and averages 13.8 points per game. Everett also brings versatility, which she showed in last week’s 84-55 win at Northern Arizona. Moving from shooting guard to point guard when starter Aisia Robertson was ill, Everett racked up seven assists and no turnovers.

“Jayla was tremendous,” Bradbury said afterward.

Australia-native Hurst has been a bit more up and down offensively. She set single-game UNM and Mountain West records with a 39-point outing against Oklahoma but has also endured a few cold-shooting games. Still, Hurst has started the Lobos’ last five games primarily because of her quickness and aggressive defense, which has been solid even when her shots are not falling. She’s averaging 28 minutes per game.

Fans have not seen as much of the other three Lobos freshmen, but there have been intriguing glimpses. Noble and McGruder have appeared in seven of UNM’s eight games, while Mathews has played in five.

Bradbury admits it’s been something of a challenge finding enough minutes to keep his young players developing.

“Those three kids have as much ability as the ones who are starting,” he said. “For them it’s a matter of working hard and continuing to learn every day.”

Noble admits that has been an adjustment.

“In high school I walked in as one of the better players,” she said. “Everyone is good here and you have to really compete for what you want.”

That’s a point some of the more experienced Lobos are trying to drive home. Senior post Nike McClure, for example, has taken the 6-foot McGruder under her wing.

“Shai is every bit as talented as I am,” McClure said, “even more so. The only reason I’m playing ahead of her is experience, but if she keeps working she could be (Mountain West) player of the year at some point.”

Bradbury agreed but pointed out that some talented freshmen become frustrated with limited playing time and regress.

“It comes down to how badly they want it,” he said.

So far, so good on that score. Everett and Noble said the Lobos’ freshman class is intensely motivated.

“The fan base here takes care of that,” Noble said. “We might’ve had more fans at Northern Arizona than (the Lumberjacks) did and our home games are amazing. None of us had anything like this in high school. How can you not work hard for fans like ours?”

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