While New Mexico had already clinched a berth as host in Saturday’s Mountain West playoff game against San Diego State, the Lobos still had plenty to play for Sunday in the regular-season finale against Colorado State.
“I think every game is important for us,” UNM coach Heather Dyche said. “We really feel like there should be two teams that make the NCAA Tournament this year. You’re always playing for something bigger.”
With New Mexico’s (9-1-0) convincing 2-0 win over the Rams (2-4-1), and the Aztecs’ finish at 8-2, Dyche can make a good case the conference does deserve two representatives in the 48-team field no matter what happens in the game that will determine the MWC’s automatic bid.
In the NCAA’s RPI, the Lobos were sitting at 25th before sweeping both their opponents this weekend. The Aztecs, who also finished with a sweep, were 44th.
New Mexico has not reached the tournament since 2011, a 1-0 loss to No. 2 UCLA. The Lobos’ only other tournament appearance was in 2010.
Sunday’s game, as with so many others on the season, featured a Gwen Maly score.
The red-hot senior who recovered from an ACL injury just in time for the spring season, now has a conference-high nine goals, good for eighth on the school’s single-season list despite the abbreviated slate of games.
Maly has been waging a spirited battle with teammate Alesia Garcia for team and conference honors in terms of scoring, until this weekend.
But Garcia said she had no issues instigating the game’s early score.
“I got the ball, saw Jadyn (Edwards) open, she saw Gwen,” Garcia said in describing the quick passing sequence in the game’s first minute. “She put it away, like usual. Gwenny scores. Gwenny, Gwenny. We’re each others’ biggest fans. We always make it fun.”
Sometimes such fast goals can have an adverse affect on the scoring team and the Lobos certainly had their ragged moments through the remainder of the first half.
The Rams got a couple of early scoring chances and New Mexico goalkeeper Malia Vanisi was forced to making a diving save in the 12th minute to preserve the lead.
“The first half, I thought we were a little bit lifeless,” Dyche said. “We got beat to too many balls and we weren’t challenging enough on 50-50s and I think in the second half we responded in a great way.”
Just five minutes into the second half, Natalie DeGagne earned her first Lobos goal after Jaelyn Hendren beat the Rams defense on a run down the wing. After cutting in, she swung a pass that passed entirely the penalty area to DeGagne waiting at the backdoor to tap it in.
The game featured a number of Lobos who don’t often get to play.
“It’s fun to see players that don’t get many minutes because they always bring energy and they’re ready whenever they get called up to play,” Garcia said. “Whenever it’s your time to shine, it’s your time to shine.”
Now New Mexico gets to focus on the Aztecs and the conference championship.
“It’s been incredible,” Garcia said of the season. “It’s so much fun. The unity of all of us. And the fact that we are 9-1 now. The happiness it brings. It’s so fun, especially with Gwen because it’s her last season and to bring her into this is great. It’s the best feeling.”