Rarely has a 20-point victory been less satisfying.
The UNM women’s basketball did not bring its “A” game to the Pit on Wednesday night but was fortunate enough not to need it. Despite sputtering through the second half and missing 18 of their first 19 3-point tries, the Lobos did enough to secure a 62-42 win over Air Force.
There were bright spots.
Sara Halasz had her first career double-double, posting game highs in points (14) and rebounds (11). New Mexico also led all the way while improving to 11-6 overall and 3-2 in Mountain West Conference play.
Still, Lobo coach Don Flanagan and his players were hardly turning cartwheels after being outscored 30-29 in the second half by Air Force (3-14, 0-4), which has lost 27 straight to New Mexico.
“It’s a little disturbing we didn’t play better for 40 minutes,” Flanagan said. “… I think we took the lead and took a break after that.”
Added junior Jessica Kielpinski, “We let ourselves let up. I don’t know why, but it’s frustrating.”
It wasn’t as though the game was ever in serious doubt. Halasz and Eileen Weissmann combined to do all the scoring as UNM jumped to a 14-0 lead in front of 7,140 fans.
The Lobos’ offense was clicking early as most of the points came on fast breaks or cuts to the basket. The home team finished with a 42-18 advantage in points in the paint.
“I think it was just a matter of wanting it more than the other team,” Halasz said of the early barrage. “But that’s got to carry through the entire game.”
The Lobos basically maintained their double-digit lead through the first half thanks to hustling half-court defense. Air Force managed just 12 points in the first 20 minutes, and Val Kast’s late post jumper gave New Mexico a 33-12 lead at intermission.
Remarkably, the Falcons scored just one point in the first six minutes of the second half but didn’t fall much further behind. The Lobos’ offense also went dry, causing the fans to stand and clap until Georonika Jackson hit two free throws with 14:22 left.
“The first half we played good defense, didn’t shoot well,” Flanagan said. “The second half we didn’t shoot well and our defense deteriorated.”
Air Force was able to cash in a few times with crisp passes inside for layups. Dymond James converted one that got the Falcons as close as 43-27 with 8:58 remaining. James led AFA with 10 points.
But after hitting just one of their first 19 3-point attempts, the Lobos got two straight from Jourdan Erskine and Amy Beggin to ignite a 16-1 run.
Leading 57-30, Flanagan emptied his bench in the late going, allowing all 13 UNM players in uniform to see action. The Falcons continued to scrap, finishing the game with a 12-5 surge.
“We can play better than that,” Flanagan said, bemoaning his team’s poor start to the second half and 3-for-21 shooting from 3-point range.
“(The Falcons’) effort was better than ours in the second half.”
Kielpinski again played well for the Lobos, narrowly missing a double-double with 10 points and nine rebounds. The junior was 5-for-9 from the floor and collected four blocks, two assists and two steals.
Flanagan said he would have preferred a few more Kielpinski shots.
“Sometimes against a defense like (Air Force’s matchup zone), you get a little three-happy,” he said. “We needed to go inside more often.”
Both teams were without injured starters, as UNM’s Lauren Taylor and AFA point guard Anna Gault sat out. Their absence may have contributed to a sloppy second half that included a slew of turnovers and late fouls.
Amanda Best finished with seven points and eight rebounds for UNM, while Weissmann, Beggin and Kast scored six points apiece. Beggin finished with nine assists and just two turnovers but struggled through an uncharacteristic 2-for-12 night.