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Lobos could be short-handed vs. Northern New Mexico

Circling the wagons was a prevailing theme for the University of New Mexico women’s basketball team Monday – even though there weren’t as many wagons on hand as usual.

Seniors Najala Howell and Bride Kennedy-Hopoate were not on hand at Dreamstyle Arena as the Lobos practiced for Tuesday night’s game against Northern New Mexico College. Both players missed Saturday’s 73-66 loss to Wyoming due to circumstances coach Mike Bradbury said he is unable to discuss.

On Monday Bradbury said that Howell and Kennedy-Hopoate are still members of his team. Asked whether they will be on the bench for Tuesday’s game, Bradbury said, “I honestly don’t know.”

Bradbury said he is working with UNM administrators to resolve the players’ situation but offered few other details.

Howell, who started UNM’s first eight games, and Kennedy-Hopoate, who started two and appeared in all eight, both participated in Friday’s practice but were not on the bench for Saturday’s game.

Bradbury declined to explain the absences after the game but said he’s discussed the situation with UNM’s other players.

“I will provide more information when I can,” he said.

Lobos senior point guard Aisia Robertson conceded that players were initially surprised when Howell and Kennedy-Hopoate were not available to play Saturday but said they have since adjusted to the situation. UNM had 11 players in uniform Saturday and at Monday’s practice.

“Everyone’s head is straight now,” Robertson said Monday. “You play with the people you’ve got. I think we’re ready to pull together and just get our rhythm back.”

It has been an odd couple of weeks for the Lobos, who have dropped three straight games after a 6-0 start. Another player, senior Jordan Hosey, did not play during UNM’s two-game trip to Cancun, Mexico, over Thanksgiving but has since returned to action. Bradbury said he was unable to discuss the reason for Hosey’s absence but said it is unrelated to the situation involving Howell and Kennedy-Hopoate.

The player absences have all occurred during a span while Robertson returned from an ACL injury suffered late last season. She missed the Lobos’ first five games of 2019-20 but has played in the last four, getting her first start Saturday against Wyoming.

Bradbury acknowledged that establishing a consistent player rotation has been difficult but said UNM has enough depth to compensate. Nine players appeared for the Lobos against Wyoming, including freshman Autumn Watts, who had played sparingly to that point.

“It won’t really change what we do (if Howell and Kennedy-Hopoate are not available),” Bradbury said. “It’ll just mean more minutes for other people, including Autumn.”

Tuesday’s game against Northern New Mexico counts as an official game for the Lobos, but it could serve more as preparation for a difficult upcoming stretch. Starting with Saturday’s game at Arizona State, UNM will play five games in a seven-day span. The final four, against New Mexico State, Providence, Loyola Marymount and Ball State, will be played at home.

Robertson said after Monday’s practice she felt good about the Lobos’ mindset.

“We’ve got a lot of people who played together last year,” she said, “and we know what we need to do. We’ve let a couple games get away playing against some really good teams but we’ll bounce back. I’ve got confidence in this group.”

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