Saturday was a telling chapter in the Mountain West Conference’s 2019-20 women’s basketball race.
Yes, first-place Fresno State won and remained unbeaten in league play. Other than that, it’s a wild, wild scramble indeed.
The University of New Mexico women rallied for a 74-71 overtime win at Wyoming and it did not rate as the biggest upset of the day. Last-place Utah State finished on a 15-2 run and won at Boise State, 10th-place Air Force won at San Diego State, and seventh-place Nevada won at San Jose State.
Four road upsets served to tighten the standings considerably. Just 1½ games separate second place from fourth, and just 2½ games separate fifth place from ninth.
Suffice it to say the three weeks remaining before Mountain West tournament play starts should be interesting.
The Lobos (13-12, 4-8) are prime examples of MWC parity. They’ll enter Wednesday night’s home game against San Diego State (11-14, 6-7) tied for eighth place but could wake up Thursday placed anywhere from sixth to ninth.
“People have asked me if we’re shooting for a particular seed,” UNM coach Mike Bradbury said. “I’m not sure it matters. Everyone is so close in this conference, our goal is just to go into the tournament playing well.”
Saturday’s road win in Laramie was a step in that direction. Prior to that game, UNM had dropped five conference games by a combined 16 points, two of them one-point defeats and two in overtime.
Sophomore Ahlise Hurst smiled when asked about her team’s penchant for playing nail-biters.
“It’s been pretty amazing,” Hurst said. “It was great to finally have one go our way. I think that can give us some momentum and confidence moving forward.”
No one has played a larger role for UNM this season than Hurst, who leads the team and ranks third in the Mountain West with 898 minutes played. (San Diego State guards Taylor Kalmer and Sophia Ramos are 1-2 with 932 and 901, respectively).
Still, Hurst has the distinction of being New Mexico’s leading scorer and its best defensive player. The 5-foot-9 guard averages 13.8 points per game and ranks fourth nationally in 3-pointers made (76) and attempted (208). Not bad for a player who nearly always has to guard the opposition’s best guard or forward.
“My defense drives my offense,” Hurst said. “I know I have to look for openings and shoot when I’m open, but defense is my focus.”
Overhearing Hurst’s response, Bradbury laughed.
“If she lets up on defense, I’ll take her out of the game,” he said, “probably for about a minute until she catches her breath. Then she’s back in there.”
San Diego State is a particularly interesting matchup for Hurst because it matches her up against either Kalmer or Ramos. The duo scorched UNM for a combined 49 points in the Aztecs’ 75-74 win Jan. 29 in San Diego.
“We have to do a better job putting pressure on them,” Hurst said. “We lost a tough one out there and we’re hoping to get a little payback, but we have to do a better job defending. Their guards are really good.”
UNM scored nine points in an 18-second span to take a late 74-73 lead in the Jan. 29 meeting but an unnecessary foul by the Lobos’ Jordan Hosey set up go-ahead free throws by Ramos with 5.2 seconds left. UNM’s Aisia Robertson then missed a potential game-winning jumper at the buzzer.
Jaedyn De La Cerda scored 24 points to lead the Lobos at San Diego State, while Hurst had a cold shooting day (3 for 13 from the field for eight points). Her scoring numbers are down just slightly (13.0 ppg) in MWC play, but Bradbury says such a dip is to be expected.
“It’s tougher in conference because teams know Ahlise is our leading scorer and they focus on her,” he said. “But she’s still been productive on both ends.”
Hurst hopes there will be more open shots in her future.
“Jaedyn’s been scoring a lot lately,” Hurst said. “Maybe they’ll start focusing on her instead.”